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All Americans deserve clean air and water — Ohio has been denied that

FILE – A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, on Feb. 6, 2023. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a package of reforms to improve safety Tuesday, Feb. 21 — two days after he warned the railroad responsible for the derailment, Norfolk Southern, to fulfill its promises to clean up the mess just outside East Palestine, and help the town recover. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

When a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, reportedly due to a web of technical malfunctions, Ohioans began to acutely feel the peril of not having a clean environment to call home.

After the train derailed, Norfolk Southern implemented venting and controlled burning of the spilled chemicals in an attempt to prevent an explosion, according to the chemical transport company. It took this approach rather than seeking other alternatives that may have be safer for those in the area. A shelter-in-place order was issued, and an eerie mushroom cloud rose over East Palestine, soon covering the town in a pungent smell.

Then the shelter-in-place order was lifted, and East Palestine residents were instead directed to evacuate, forced to leave behind their homes and often, their beloved pets. Once they returned — some far too soon as they had nowhere else to go — the aftershocks were obvious. Disturbing videos of waterways locals says are contaminated by the derailment are circulating online, as are stories of both people and pets in respiratory distress. Rashes and headaches have also been reported in the area as common symptoms following the chemical spill. While there have been no reported human casualties as of yet, both wild and domesticated animals have perished, according to residents in the area impacted.

In the days following the derailment and subsequent explosion, national media was largely silent, only apparently picking up the story a week later when a local journalist caused a disturbance during a press conference. This quickly spiraled into a rumor that journalists were being arrested for trying to cover the derailment. 

The Biden administration, too, largely seemed to shrug the disaster off. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigeig even said that there are roughly 1,000 train derailments each year — as if what the people of East Palestine are experiencing is insignificant. The White House has argued that support has been on the ground since the beginning, yet just last week, the federal government reportedly denied East Palestine’s request for aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Since then, it appears the federal government decided it will provide some assistance, but not through FEMA.

While the situation has been incredibly confusing and there certainly is misinformation floating around, there is no doubt that something must be done. Without FEMA support, the state legislature plans to meet this week to allocate rainy day funds to go toward clean-up. Without robust federal support, though, East Palestine could be feeling the effects of this derailment for generations to come.

Regardless of political party, socioeconomic status, or geography, all Americans deserve clean air and clean water to live healthy, safe, prosperous lives. Again and again, although, we see Americans denied these conditions. If we are to address the effects of a changing climate and other environmental degradation, we must put people at the center of these efforts. Without a healthy environment, people suffer. From dangerous water contamination in Flint, Michigan to the current situation in East Palestine, we haven’t taken care of our environment in the way that we should — and disadvantaged communities have suffered. We must recognize that what is good for the planet is good for people.

Whether a community is a blue-collar Midwestern town or an inner-city urban neighborhood or a small suburb, the people there deserve a clean environment. While East Palestine seems largely shunned by the federal government, it is a resilient community that will rebuild from this tragedy. Ohioans — and Americans everywhere — deserve a cleaner, safer, healthier environment to call home.

Benji Backer is the president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition (ACC). Follow him on Twitter @BenjiBacker.

Tags Benji Backer clean air clean water EPA FEMA Ohio Pollution toxic chemicals train derailment

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