Many Ohio families wonder if the worst is yet to come after the devastating train wreck in February that spilled toxic chemicals across East Palestine and beyond.
Ground zero is blocked off by Norfolk Southern barricades, owners of the land where contaminated soil lay beneath rail tracks running through the town's small industrial complex. The site is about a football field away from residential housing. Locals tell CBN if this would have happened any closer to the town center, it would have been much more devastating.
"By the grace of God that nobody was killed or hurt," said Barb Kugler, a 30-year resident of East Palestine. shake shack
Cleanup crews remain on-site, digging up and removing contaminated soil – a process that fills the air with contaminants.
"To me, it kind of smells like a burning plastic," Kugler said.
As you can imagine, talk around town remains centered on February's derailment: the safety of drinking water, air quality, and contaminated soil. The Environmental Protection Agency is monitoring the clean-up and contamination levels, updating the public in real-time while responding to the catastrophe.
"Smelling odors doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have health effects," said Mark Durno, response coordinator with the EPA.
However, Durno says contamination numbers can easily fluctuate – he expects the EPA to monitor water tributaries for years to come.
"We're estimating somewhere between 60 and 100,000 tons of contaminated material are going to come out of the area – so that's significant," Durno said. "There were over 900,000 pounds of vinyl chloride (on board)."
The EPA is helping clean and monitor toxins while shipping contaminated soil and water to deep well injection sites.
"It's our job to make sure that anything that may be left behind are not at levels that could ever be a health concern to residents, or the ecology in the area," Durno said. "We inject the contaminants several miles into the earth, that will never be accessed again by human hands."
About half of the town's 5,000 residents evacuated after the accident due to a catastrophic failure in a train car's overheated wheel bearing. The fear of the unknown, however, could be the biggest worry here in East Palestine.
"I look at my son and his wife who just bought their house – and are raising (my) grand-children," Kugler said. "I just wonder, is this a good place for them to raise them now?"
"I'm afraid to buy produce from Ohio, so what's that going to do to our economy?" said another concerned Ohioan.
Those who want to leave, can't – because trying to sell a home or business has become so difficult. Duane Doyle, owner of Doyle's Fresh Meat and Deli knows the frustration all too well. He had planned to sell the shop and retire with his wife. Then the unexpected happened.
"They were just afraid of the unknown – and so, they decided not to do it," Doyle said.
Folks like Zachery Schultz are looking for long-term solutions for the people who live here. Schultz is working with a nearby church to use an anonymous donation from Texas to buy and install roughly 70 carbon water filtration systems for homes in the affected area.
"I just want my kid to be able to drink out of the hose one day," Schultz said while installing a filtration system. "This covers your whole house; we just don't have the research to be able to tell someone that it's a safe level to drink it."
Pastor Ken Sevacko with Rogers Assembly of God saw the open door for God to do something. He tells CBN the water filtration installation is a tangible way to love the people of East Palestine.
"We've been involved since day one – basically handing out water and baby formula, trying to meet immediate needs," Pastor Sevacko said. "But bottled water is a band-aid fix, it's a temporary fix. Some of our people need a little bit more of a sustained help. This is our community. We love our community. And we're here to see it through the good times and the bad times."
Sue and Randy Dunlap are one of the families getting a filter. While there's no guarantee it can remove all contamination, they hope some protection is better than nothing.
"Yeah, we don't drink a whole lot from the faucet directly," Sue Dunlap said. "You don't know what you don't know, you just have to make a choice and do what you're going to do."
For some, this has become a crisis of uncertainty due to the long-term impact of the derailment and spill. Pastor Sevacko, though, sees a resilient community leaning on their faith that God will heal their land. As East Palestine residents look toward the future, he seeks to reassure them that God is their refuge and strength – an ever-present help in times of trouble.
"Houses can be replaced, jobs can be replaced, but people/family relationships can't," said Sevacko. "And through all of this, there hasn't been one loss of life. And so that's just incredible in and of itself. So, I think that's a focal point where people are readjusting their values."