Opinion: ‘Everyone’s scared’ — a novelist’s view of the Ohio rail disaster- QHN


One well-known resident of East Palestine, Ohio, is book author Judith A. Lennington, who has published nearly 20 works of fiction, almost all of which can be found, she says, in the town’s library.

Judy A. Lennington

Lennington, 75, attended area schools from elementary to high school. And before striking out as a writer late in life, she worked for more than three decades in factories a stone’s throw from East Palestine. The community of nearly 5,000 is in northern Appalachia, about an hour from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and about 30 minutes from the Rust Belt city of Youngstown, Ohio.

On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train carrying 20 cars of hazardous materials slid off the rails and caught fire, threatening to explode and prompting mass evacuations. State officials complied with the company’s request to intentionally burn off some of the chemicals at the site.

East Palestine has been through difficult times over the years, as its population has dwindled and industry moved away. But residents say nothing as cataclysmic has befallen the town as the train derailment that emitted a noxious plume of smoke and put the future of the community in question.

The derailment was just three miles from the farm where Lennington and her husband reside — far enough to avoid the evacuation that was ordered in parts of East Palestine, but well within range of the fumes. She spoke to CNN Opinion’s Stephanie Griffith about the disaster and its ongoing impact on her community.

CNN: You live a few miles from the site of the derailment. What has been your personal experience of the initial disaster and its ongoing impact?

Lennington: The railroad trains go right by here. We can see the train tracks from our house. They run right by my home to go into the center of East Palestine.

The cloud that went up in the sky was like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. It looked like a huge black cloud with a tornado coming down from it. It was just awful. After the accident, we put quilts over the doors and over the windows, sealed the cracks and just stayed inside.

I can still smell it outside. Luckily the fumes are not strong here — the wind blows in the other direction — but I can, still, if I go from the house to the garage, I can feel my eyes burning. And I lose my voice after a while.

I know a lot of the people in town who were evacuated. My sister was evacuated. She lives two blocks from the wreck. And there are a lot of people in town who already have health issues — and then this happens.

CNN: You came to writing professionally later in life. How did that come about?

Lennington: I worked for 38 years in a factory on an assembly line. The first factory I worked in made filing cabinets, desks and fireproof security boxes. I was a welder there. I met all kinds of people. I heard all kinds of stories and it was just when I retired, I was just kind of stuck.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. My husband was still working and I was retired. So I just started writing the story for him. And he would come home every night and he would read maybe five or six pages that I wrote in my first book. And when it was done, he said, ‘Oh my gosh, you have to publish it.”

I said, “You know I am not a college professor. I am a factory worker. I can’t publish a book.” But he said, “You have to.” So I sent the file on a Friday to I think four publishers, and Monday morning I got a call from a publisher.

And after that, I was writing.

CNN: You’ve lived in or near East Palestine all your life. Tell me what it’s like — and how it has changed over the years.

Lennington: East Palestine used to be quite the community. I grew up on a farm (one town over) in Negley, Ohio. I first moved to East Palestine in 1967. At that time, there was so much industry in the town. There were little mom and pop stores. There was a skating rink.

And then everything just left. Little by little, the shops closed down and then the industry started to go.

And over time, people just started leaving. When their parents died, young people stayed behind. But there was no work around here, so they all just moved away.

You know, there are no homeless people on our streets, no hypodermic needles lying about, and our citizens opened up their own independent businesses and have kept this community going. Every neighbor watches out for the next.

It really breaks my heart to see the community going through this, because they feel like nobody’s really listening to them. There are so many people who are just so angry because they feel like they can’t trust anyone.

CNN: And it appears that part of the growing mistrust is about a $1,000 “inconvenience payment” that some residents in East Palestine reportedly have been offered?

Lennington: There was talk that if you went and you took the money then you’re not going to be able to get anything later down the road. And people were like, “Is this true? Do we believe this?”

$1,000 is a lot of money to some people. But my sister for one, she didn’t go to a motel. There are people in town who don’t have credit cards. When they evacuate, they’re told they have to go to a motel. Well, the motel wants money upfront, you know, they don’t care what the railroads are telling you. And people in this town don’t always have that.

CNN: In the wake of this disaster, how are you and other residents of this tiny community coping?

Lennington: I think the more the media gets involved, the better it’ll be for the citizens. At least they’ll feel like their stories have been heard and they haven’t been just brushed under the rug.

There are many rumors out there. You still can’t get down there. The roads are blocked. They won’t let you even get down that street.

I know some people that don’t want to take their pets outside. They are afraid they’ll get in the grass — and that the grass will make them sick.

Everyone’s scared. They had a normal life, then they’re told to grab what you can and get out now, which they did. And then they were told, well, you can go back and you’re on your own. You know, that’s not right. I think they (the rail company) owe these people something.

I retired at 62, because I was afraid of the chemicals. I thought they were dangerous. And my husband did the same thing. My father lived here on the farm. When he got cancer, I came down here and stayed with him and started taking care of him. After he died, my husband and I decided to relocate here. We tried to keep everything chemical-free. And then we have this train wreck.

They keep talking about how the waterways are clear, but the fish are dying. People say toxins have been found in the Ohio River as far as Weirton, West Virginia. That’s a lot of water that that toxins passed through to get to there and they’re still not gone.

So I don’t know what’s going to happen. Is it safe to let your children go out and walk in that grass? Is it safe to let your pets go to the bathroom on the grass and then come back in your house? If your water is safe, what about those ponds where the train wreck is? There are little standing ponds on both sides of the tracks there. Did anybody check that water? We just don’t know.

A week ago, we went for a ride through town before the accident on our way to the post office and we just took some side streets and we commented about how many homes in town were for sale. And that was before the accident.

Now, what hope is there for those people selling those homes? And what if you are a person who worked like I did for 38 years in a factory, and you were going to sell your home as part of your retirement. What happens now?

It’s just sad. And I don’t have the answers.

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