East Palestine looks past the one-year anniversary of fiery train derailment

EAST PALESTINE — To mark the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern train derailment that altered the trajectory of their village, East Palestine leaders unrolled a new logo, a new website, new newsletter and a new approach, focusing on the village’s future and seeking to put the events of Feb. 3, 2023 and the past behind them.

“Let’s not forget the events and efforts that brought us here this past year as a community to overcome adversity. I want to reiterate our positive message about moving forward and taking control of our narrative,” Mayor Trent Conaway said in his opening statement at Friday’s press conference held at the East Palestine Community Center. “We won’t allow others to use our community for their agendas. We believe in East Palestine as a community that is strong. Many others believe in us too. We will rebuild a stronger, more reliant East Palestine.”

The village’s new logo and new motto of “Pride. Tradition. Progress.” was printed repeatedly on the backdrop set up behind Conaway, Fire Chief Keith Drabrick and Village Manager Chad Edwards — the only three village officials to speak at the press conference.

The three spoke in front of local and national media, as the country’s attention is refocused on East Palestine a year removed from the derailment that made the village a household name last year.

The press conference was the first put on by WRL Advertising in Canton hired by East Palestine to shake the stigma, rebrand the village’s image in the wake of the rail disaster and to counter what Drabick called “misinformation”.

“The fact is you have to talk to everybody and more than a select few. You have to talk to most. It’s safe here. Businesses are growing here. They are trying to promote here. And part of us is stepping up to the plate and getting information out better,” Drabick said. “That’s were WRL, the newsletter, the new website, the new brand, new tagline, that’s where that all comes in. That’s us doing a better job of getting that information out, promoting that positive that we see in the public and letting the world know that it’s okay to be here, that we are doing better, that we are getting better. It was a horrible disaster, we acknowledge that. There are people that still have concerns and we acknowledge them. We don’t downplay any of that but at the same time there’s good stuff there and that’s what we are going to promote.”

Edwards expanded on Drabick’s comments regarding the need to improve the village’s communication with the community — a complaint that has been repeated by residents in the past year.

“This is part of a comprehensive effort to revitalize our image and enhance communication,” Edwards said. “We also have a newsletter out and I am pleased to introduce the new website. It will be a single source for factual information, an easy-to-understand news and information. We are also launching social media channels along with the village newsletter to keep everyone informed with what’s going on.”

Edwards shared some of the initiatives taken by the village to rebuild and recover that includes the contracting of Bricker Graydon as the economic development firm (hired by the village through a $500,000 grant from the railroad to help revitalize the village) partnership with WRL and forming of the East Palestine Community Improvement Corporation (CIC). Through the formation of the CIC, the village will be able to purchase land and dilapidated structures (to restore or tear down). Edwards said the CIC will focus on promoting businesses, trying to recruit businesses and bringing people to the village where “it is safe to operate.”

Edwards, who was hired at the end of last year, added that he had no reservations about living or working in East Palestine.

“I moved here and one of the questions that I was asked was if I was afraid to live here. I was not,” Edwards said. “I was not here for the derailment but I’m here now and I’m glad to be here to be part of the solution, which is what we are doing.”

Drabick touched on the extensive remediation and monitoring efforts as well as the data collected by both the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies (EPA) over the course of the last year. That data continues to indicate the derailment poses no risk to soil, air or water within the village.

“To date, 42.8 million gallons have been recovered and transferred offsite and 176,487 tons of waste soil removed. They flushed 5,200 feet of impacted waterways, 1,221 drinking water wells sampled and 115 million air monitoring data points collected and analyzed along with other 45,000 samples across all media that has been collected and analyzed,” he said.

Drabrick later pushed back at reports that independent testing disproves the EPA’s findings, and, when asked if he believes the EPA is being transparent with East Palestine, Drabick pulled no punches.

“Absolutely, 100%, unequivocally transparent,” Drabick said.

Still, Drabick sympathized with displaced residents who still don’t feel safe returning to the village, and while he acknowledges their apprehension and respects their decision, he doesn’t completely understand the logic behind it.

“The people staying at the hotels that are afraid to come back are using water tested by the same (EPA) facilities that are testing the water here. So think about that? We don’t trust them because of what happened there,” he said. “And I get that. I feel for them. It’s a mental trauma. Some of them are having medical issues and I hope that we can develop plans, which we are working on, to get medical testing for long term and to get treatment for long term, but the bottom line is if you anywhere else but here, you are trusting those stats, you are trusting that data. Just because the train derailed the EPA does not fictitiously make up numbers. Those testing facilities are governed by the same company that’s governing them here.”

As far Norfolk Southern’s role in the remediation and recovery process, Drabick said that while the village will continue to make sure the railroad fulfills all obligations created by the derailment, so far, Norfolk Southern seems motivated to do so.

“Norfolk Southern has worked in cooperation with the village. They have stepped up and done exactly what they said they were going to do, whether that be remediation or helping to get the town back to where it was. We’ve had no issues with them,” he said. “We are holding them to the fire, as the mayor likes to say. We are holding them accountable, just like everybody else is and just like they should be. Quite honestly, they are working well with us, and whether it be a presidential directive, an EPA order or a request from us in regards to remediation, cleanup and revitalization, they are doing what they are supposed to.”


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