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On today’s show, we’ll be looking at the environmental impact of the rail industry and hear from people in two communities currently impacted by rail-related contamination.
In February, a Suffolk Northern train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and residents are still recovering from the disaster over two months later. Residents like Jami Wallace and community organizations are fighting for relief.
In Houston’s Fifth Ward, residents have been living with the dire health effects of carcinogenic creosote used to treat railroad ties decades ago. Health officials have found cancer clusters in the neighborhood, where many have been devastated by the loss of friends, neighbors and loved ones. We’ll hear a story from Living Downstream about the impacts to this close-knit community, where residents and organizers like Sandra Edwards continue to advocate for accountability and justice.
Image Caption: The text “Toxic Tracks” on a background of railroad tracks. Background image by Hands off my tags! Michael Gaida from Pixabay
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Living Downstream Staff The Making Contact Team
Living Downstream Staff
The Making Contact Team
- Minimal Documentary by penguinmusic via Pixabay
- Documentary by The Mountain via Pixabay
Button: You’re listening to Making Contact.
Lucy Kang: On today’s Making Contact…
We’ll be looking at the power of the railroad industry and how private, for-profit rail corporations have caused dire environmental harm.
Sandra Edwards: I hate that it’s nothing to hold this multi-billion dollar company accountable. They have a license to kill and nobody is taking it from them.
Lucy Kang: The impact from the pollution, contamination and accidents they cause often falls on communities of color and rural communities – who have to advocate for themselves to get their health concerns taken seriously.
Jami Wallace: You know, we felt strongly that if they were wrong about our house, how many other houses were they wrong about?
Lucy Kang: Trains and the industrial freight they transport can cause devastating environmental impacts to people living near railways and railyards. In today’s show, we will hear from people currently dealing with hazardous contamination in two communities: East Palestine, Ohio and the Fifth Ward in Houston, Texas. And we’ll hear about how they’re fighting for environmental justice and accountability.
All that and more, coming up.
On February 3rd, a 149-car Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio in a rural area near the Pennsylvania border. It was carrying toxic chemicals, including carcinogenic vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics like PVC. Three days later, when one car carrying vinyl chloride started heating up dangerously, workers set all five cars containing vinyl chloride on fire, to prevent them from exploding. This released a cocktail of chemicals into the air, in addition to those that spilled into the ground and waterways. When burned, vinyl chloride and the other chemicals can break down into deadly phosgene gas and highly toxic dioxins.
Residents were evacuated initially from a one mile radius that was later widened. East Palestine resident and community organizer Jami Wallace spoke with me about her experience of the aftermath.
Jami Wallace: This just happened back in February, so it’s kind of changed my entire life. Right now, after going hotel to hotel, um… [coughs]
I’m gonna grab a drink of water. I apologize. I don’t know where it is. My coughing fit’s on. It’s after being in town for a couple days, you can hear how hoarse I am.
Alright back to where I was. So it had been a couple days, and I had not been home. And I had to run back into my apartment to grab our prescriptions. And I was gonna grab a couple more clothes because, you know, I’d only taken extra clothes for the baby. And as soon as I pulled in my driveway, this smell like smacked me in the face. So I get back to the hotel room, and I bring the clothes in. And the room had this chemical stench. It was like the entire room smelled.
Lucy Kang: She had to wash the clothes to get the smell out.
Officially, the evacuation order was lifted two days after the five rail cars were set on fire. But Jami and her family have been bouncing from hotel to hotel and other lodgings because they don’t feel safe going back. She called a hotline to get the air in her house tested.
Jami Wallace: You know, the CTEH came in, and we had some questions about the paperwork we were signing said that we were allowing Norfolk Southern and basically any of its subcontractors to enter our premises. So that was the first red flag, like this is Norfolk Southern.
Lucy Kang: CTEH, the company Norfolk Southern contracted to do the testing, has been hired by many industry firms in the past for environmental disasters, including BP during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. CTEH has previously marketed itself to industry clients by saying the data it collects can shield them from liability, according to a ProPublica report, which also cites many experts who say they performed inadequate air testing in East Palestine.
Jami Wallace: So we let them into our house where they walk through it, maybe a minute or two, with a handheld device and are allegedly testing our air. They said everything’s fine, you know, you can come back home. And I said, wait a minute. I said Sulfur Run Creek is like seven paces from my front door to the embankment. And by this time we did know there were chemicals in the creek. We just didn’t know which chemicals they were or how much had been released into our streams.
Lucy Kang: Jami says because of her persistence, a toxicologist eventually came to assess her house because of how close it was to the creek.
Jami Wallace: The toxicologist, you know, came and talked to me. And he said that you were right, that your house is kind of a unique situation. And he’s like, okay, well we will pay all your relocation costs. You know, they’re telling everybody in town that there has been no homes that were found to be unsafe. But yet they were calling and trying to offer money to relocate my family because they sent in a toxicologist who agreed that it wasn’t safe. You know, we felt strongly that if they were wrong about our house, how many other houses were they wrong about?
Lucy Kang: Jami says she and her family continue to experience health problems.
Jami Wallace: Immediately after the derailment, my daughter and I both were having respiratory problems. And here it is, what, two months later? But I still have this, you know, upper respiratory infection.
If I’m in town too long, I get nauseated. Um, like to the point where I have to pull over and get sick. Every time I go in town, my lips start to like tingle and my mouth burns and my nose burns. Eyes burning. I’ve had skin rashes. Headache.
And it’s funny because once you leave town, the symptoms will go away until you come back. And that’s because we’re being actively exposed right now. I saw a 10 month old baby covered in rashes. You know, it’s not in our heads. They know that we’re being poisoned. We are still being poisoned, and we’re just expected to sit here and say, okay.
Lucy Kang: Norfolk Southern set up an assistance center for East Palestine residents. The company has said it will provide temporary relocation costs for people within the original one mile radius evacuation zone. And its CEO later testified it was also providing support to people in nearby Darlington Township in Pennsylvania. But it’s not clear how widely that financial assistance is being offered. And residents report receiving arbitrary and inconsistent support.
Jami Wallace: When you go to the assistant center, they’re leaving Norfolk Southern to play God. Because Norfolk Southern is, I’m sorry, Norfolk Southern is determining who gets relocation costs and who don’t. It’s whatever they do on the whim. And also no one talks about how degrading it is to have to go in there and beg the person that did this to you and your community to make it right and to help you. I just don’t understand what all this is being, you know, put into the hands of Norfolk Southern.
Corporate greed, definitely was the cause of this. You know, the railway workers have been talking about this precision scheduling that they do now with the railroad where, you know, they get less time to inspect the tanks. They work longer hours. They add more trains or more cars to the trains. The union’s been fighting this for years.
Lucy Kang: In the past few years, Norfolk Southern has spent billions of dollars on stock buybacks, while reducing staff by 40%. Railroad Workers United, an inter-union workers group, has called for railroads to be turned over to public hands – and out of the control of companies that have lobbied against more stringent safety regulations.
Jami and the community organization River Valley Organizing have several demands. One is for Norfolk Southern to pay relocation costs to anyone who wants it. Another one is:
Jami Wallace: Also long-term medical care care. I’m discussing some of these short-term effects that this exposure has caused on people. And I’m trying to deal with that right now. I don’t even think that people have began to digest what the long-term effects are. We’re truly fighting for our children. We’re not even fighting for ourselves. Twenty years from now, I’m 46, probably gonna have one foot in the grave anyways. But I’ve also lived my life. My three year old, she’s gonna be in the prime of her life.
Lucy Kang: Jami, residents and groups like River Valley Organizing and United for East Palestine continue to fight for accountability and relief. Norfolk Southern is facing lawsuits from residents, the state of Ohio, and the US EPA.
Officials said residents were safe to return home based on reported air quality samples. But the EPA actually admitted that some of their devices may not have been sensitive enough to detect butyl acrylate at low levels in the air. And independent research by a Purdue University volunteer team has found concerning inconsistencies in the official testing. A member of that team, Andrew Whelton, professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental and Ecological Engineering, spoke at a Pennsylvania Senate hearing in March.
Andrew Whelton: We had found several chemicals in the creek water that officials weren’t testing for but were definitely related to the fire. So we have urged these agencies to correct their testing approaches, and we haven’t seen that yet. Because it’s pretty hard to understand what the health risks are for something if you’re not testing for them.
Lucy Kang: He went on to share some study results.
Andrew Whelton: And in that, we compared federal, state, and county air and water testing results and showed that agencies are not testing for a whole bunch of things that they’ve identified as health risk in air, but haven’t tested for in the surface water, or haven’t tested for in the well water.
Lucy Kang; Without that information, the true scale of the contamination in the air, soil and water can’t be known, and the full impact to residents can’t be determined. Jami and other community organizations are also calling for independent scientific testing as part of their demands.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office is investigating Norfolk Southern for possible criminal activities.
The disaster in East Palestine is the 20th derailment from a Norfolk Southern train that’s caused a chemical spill since 2015, according to Sen. Debbie Stabenow during a US Senate hearing.
Amy Gastelum: Hi, this is Amy Gastelum, and I’m just jumping in to remind you that you are listening to Making Contact. If you’ve liked today’s show so far, leave us a comment. We wanna hear from you. Find us online at radioproject.org. Okay, now back to the show.
Lucy Kang: Now we turn our attention to another case of railroad contamination – one that’s been going on for decades in neighborhoods in Houston, Texas. Here is a shortened version of a story by Laura Isensee from the show Living Downstream that first aired in 2021.
Laura Isensee: Almost his whole life Corinthian Giles has lived in this red and white house and Houston’s greater Fifth Ward. It’s one of the city’s oldest Black communities, and it’s just a few miles northeast of downtown. Corinthian is 13 years old, stocky, and a little shy. He likes to ride his four-wheeler up and down the streets.
Corinthian Giles: I go outside. I play video games. And I have dogs – so I go feed them. I might play with them, and that’s it.
Laura Isensee: He’s the youngest of LaTonya Payne’s five children, though he’s not her biological child. He’s her niece’s son. LaTonya has cared for Corinthian as his guardian since he was two weeks old. She still calls him by his nickname, Mister.
LaTonya Payne: It had been a while since we had a baby around. And we were just spoiling him, and we just let him have his way. So we just call him Mister. Like you’re in charge, like you’re, you’re the big person around here. We do what you say.
Laura Isensee: One Sunday night when he was eight years old, Mister came into her room. He had played outside that afternoon and had a terrible pain in his hip. Mister doesn’t like to talk about that time. LaTonya remembers it in detail.
LaTonya Payne: He was in so much pain that he was crying, like real tears crying, you know. He went to sleep and then it went away. And then he was complaining again that it was still hurting a couple of days after that. So I took them to his pediatrician. And they said all is probably just growing pains.
Laura Isensee: They ran some labs. When the results came back slightly abnormal. The doctor chalked it up to a recent cold. But then the pain came back. It got so bad Corinthian limped when he tried to walk. It took two more visits to the doctor before LaTonya got the call from one of the nation’s elite cancer centers.
LaTonya Payne: And it was the nurse saying that I needed to bring him into MD Anderson immediately because he had leukemia. And I was like, she was like your, your pediatrician hasn’t called you? I’m like, no, they haven’t told us anything. And it just seems so un– you know, like, it just caught me by surprise.
Laura Isensee: Childhood Leukemia is a rare disease. It’s a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow, where new blood cells are made. LaTonya rushed Mister to the hospital where a cancer specialist saw him right away.
LaTonya Payne: So he did a thorough exam of him. It wasn’t until a little later, when I asked him about if leukemia was genetics. And he told me no, it wasn’t genetics, it was environmental.
Laura Isensee: Environmental. She wondered where it was coming from, the air, the water, what had her child been exposed to?
LaTonya Payne: But not knowing directly what it is, where to start, where to look, you know. That’s all it was is, it’s environmental.
Laura Isensee: LaTonya had even more questions when three months later, she got diagnosed with breast cancer. But she had to push those questions aside. First she had to get better and help Mister beat leukemia.
Two blocks from Mister’s home the street dead ends into the Englewood railyard. You can see the tracks from their kitchen window. The railyard dates back to the late 1800s and the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. Since at least the 1940s workers labored there to make railroad ties. They dipped the wood in a tar-like black chemical mixture called creosote. This preserved and treated the wood so they could make the railroad tracks.
People of a certain age might remember when virtually everything made of wood outdoors was painted with creosote, like telephone poles and fence posts. Sandra Edwards grew up half a block from the facility, on Lavender Street.
Sandra Edwards: And you can see the smoke, the fumes will come out over in your house.
Laura Isensee: She says as a kid, it was like a show watching the wood get treated.
Sandra Edwards: You could see the chute where it goes up in the chute, come down, splash everywhere. And then they go park over at the end of the fence and let them just sit there until they got ready to use them.
Laura Isensee: The railyard stopped treating wood with creosote in 1984. Then in 1997, Union Pacific, a multibillion dollar railroad company, took over the site when it merged with Southern Pacific. Trains still pull in and out from the yard as they haul freight across the country. Sandra hasn’t forgotten the smell of those chemicals.
Sandra Edwards: You know how you pass by a building that’s getting the roof done in tar, and you can barely breathe? It was twice that odor. It was strong like tar and some gas mixed together. And it would take over your breath. You had to gasp before you could actually breathe coming through here.
Laura Isensee: She says the tar would run off when it rained, and sometimes kids would play in it. Back then there wasn’t a fence around the railyard. It was in everyone’s backyard. Mary Hutchins and Lisa Glen have homes across the street from Sandra, four blocks over from Mister. They joke around with the mailman. The two friends go back some 40 years. Their mothers were friends too.
Lisa Glen: That’s when I found out Mary’s mom had a lump in her breast. And my mom told her well, I got one too.
Laura Isensee: Both of their mothers eventually died from cancer. More neighbors on Lavender Street started getting sick in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Mary Hutchins: Pretty much it done touch most houses on the street. I’ve also had thyroid cancer. My brother passed. My mother passed. I had a cousin here to help raise me. She passed.
Lisa Glen: Miss Coachman had cancer.
Mary Hutchins: Miss Barbara had cancer. I know that some of the French’s, Thomas’ family, they had cancer.
Lisa Glen: [Unintelligible] and his wife had cancer. And his daughter had cancer. And I know this man had cancer.
Laura Isensee: For a long time they suspected what was making so many loved ones and neighbors sick. They point down the road to the railyard and all those chemicals from the creosote from all those years.
Lisa Glen: That’s why the street now, it looks like a graveyard. It’s dead over here because of the contamination.
Laura Isensee: The concentration of cancers spurred residents to organize and advocate.
Sandra Edwards: Impact Fifth Ward.
Laura Isensee: Sandra Edwards is the president of the grassroots group.
Sandra Edwards: We’re trying to bring Fifth Ward back to life because there’s a lot of potential out here. People have robbed us from it.
Laura Isensee: They met every month at a local church until the pandemic. At demonstrations, they dressed up a Halloween skeleton as “Creosote Man.” Mister’s mother LaTonya Payne went to one town hall meeting. Sandra worries about the chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater and if they’re coming back as vapors.
Sandra Edwards: Vapors. Just like if you were to see something in the soil out there. In the sun, it gets hot enough, and you see it starts smoking in the waves. That’s cooking it. It’s making it come up. And if you walking in and out of that soil or grass or whatever, you gonna contract this, you’re going to pick it up. That’s how it stays with you.
Laura Isensee: That tar-like mixture, the rail yard used – creosote – the EPA considers it a probable human carcinogen. It’s made up of more than 200 chemical compounds. Cleanup efforts have been ongoing since the 1980s. And Union Pacific has had to test the groundwater and monitor that chemical plume regularly.
But it wasn’t until recently in 2014, that residents learned that the toxic plume in the ground had moved underneath more than 100 homes. Then in 2019, state health authorities confirmed what residents had long believed. They found an official cancer cluster. Adults in two historically Black neighborhoods, Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens had elevated rates of certain cancers, including lung, esophagus and larynx cancers.
Sandra Edwards: I felt like somebody has stuck their hand in my chest and pulled my heart out.
Laura Isensee: Sandra got the news from the city’s chief environmental officer.
Sandra Edwards: Cause she say everything you thought, it is true, it’s right. You were right. And I just, I broke down because you know when you know something, and people started telling me, you wrong. And you like, hell what you say, I know what I know cause I’m sitting there living it. And I would not stop.
Laura Isensee: That administrator, Lauren Hopkins, keeps a map of the contamination on her conference table at the City Health Department.
Lauren Hopkins: I have it out all the time. It just, it’s a convenient reminder of, you know, where the contamination is. And we have lots of questions going on about, you know, where sampling has occurred, where sampling should occur.
Laura Isensee: The map shows the edge of the Union Pacific railyard. To the north, the houses are numbered and colored bright yellow, if the company found contamination underneath. It looks like a neon checkerboard. Some of the highlighted properties belong to Sandra Edwards, Mary Hutchins and Lisa Glen. It stops just short of where Mister lives. It’s not the city’s job to monitor the plume. It’s up to a state agency to regulate the site.
Laura Isensee: One thing the city of Houston did was ask the Texas Health Department to take a closer look at the cancer rates. What came back shocked public health authorities and families. They identified a second cancer cluster, this one affecting children. They found 28 cases of childhood leukemia, when health statistics would predict only 16. In one census tract, children had leukemia at five times the expected rate. When Sandra Edwards heard the news, she immediately thought of LaTonya Payne’s son, Mister.
Sandra Edwards: That’s the first person came to my mind. That boy been suffering a long time. I mean, my heart goes out to him. He don’t have a kid’s life, he has a medical life.
LaTonya Payne: When Sandra came and you know, told me about the leukemia thing, it was just more clarity.
Laura Isensee: That’s LaTonya Payne again.
LaTonya Payne: I was very, very angry when I found out about it. And angry because I personally feel like the Union Pacific Railroad knows and knew exactly what was going on. And then for them to continue to say that, you know, they’ve had the research done and it’s not true and isn’t… It just makes me very angry. It’s not fair to anyone, you know, and especially not fair to the children at all.
Laura Isensee: LaTonya Payne and her son are still living with the impacts of environmental injustice that occurred years before he was born. Mister’s leukemia had gone into remission after extended chemotherapy until it came back last October. The cancer, the treatment, the rail yard, it’s hard for LaTonya’s son to talk about.
LaTonya Payne: Honestly, I think he either blocked a lot of stuff out or doesn’t want to remember certain things about it.
Laura Isensee: Since October, Mister has been on a strict medical program, starting with more chemotherapy.
LaTonya Payne: And that chemotherapy killed his white blood cells, any immune system that he had, to fight off infection. So he picked up an infection in his forehead.
Laura Isensee: Doctors had to remove part of his forehead and graft skin from his arm. Corinthian is shy about the scar and often wears a baseball cap. For months he’s been going to the hospital for special antibiotics to protect against more infections. His family hopes he’ll get a bone marrow transplant soon so the leukemia won’t come back.
LaTonya Payne: It’s a lot that goes into it, even though it doesn’t actually require actual surgery. But I’m just ready for the journey with his leukemia to be over so he can be totally healed from it. Right now, that’s all my focus is on.
Laura Isensee: LaTonya wants her son to have a normal childhood again. Go to school, play basketball, be with friends. While Sandra Edwards advocates for children like Mister in her community, she also raises the alarm about the creosote contamination with just about everyone she meets. She wants the railroad company Union Pacific to pay for people’s medical bills, provide health screenings, and relocate residents.
Sandra Edwards: I don’t care how much it costs. Do it. Cause it’s not fair to leave people in a death trap. Wait for them to die.
Lucy Kang: Sadly, Mister passed away in 2021 due to complications from a bone marrow transplant, just a few weeks after this story was originally produced.
To hear an interview with reporter Laura Isensee and get links to the complete Living Downstream episode and series, visit the Making Contact website.
Now for some updates since that story first aired. Residents like Sandra Edwards, and the City of Houston and Harris County have sued Union Pacific.
I talked recently with Sandra, who is no longer the president of Impact Fifth Ward. She says she’s actually spoken to residents affected by the Norfolk Southern train disaster in East Palestine.
Sandra Edwards: Yeah, they reached out to me and they wanted to know how, you know, what’s the next steps or how would they go about this. I said raise a lot of noise, as much as you can. Because if we would’ve done that when this happened out here, we wouldn’t be living like this right now.
You know, these are people over here. People are losing kids, their parents. They’re losing left and right over here while we still trying to survive over here
I hate that there’s nothing holding this multi-billion dollar company accountable. When they break the law, who holds them accountable? What kinda charges can you bring up on them? They have a license to kill, and nobody is taking it from them.
Lucy Kang: So often, it’s communities of color and rural and lower-income communities – who have to bear the brunt of environmental harm and injustice from the railroad companies.
Meanwhile, Sandra Edwards and others in the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden neighborhoods in Houston, Texas are still fighting for accountability. As are Jami Wallace and residents in East Palestine and other impacted communities.
And that does it for today’s show. If you’d like more information or to hear the full Living Downstream story, visit us at radioproject.org.
I’m Lucy Kang. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.