This story was published as a collaboration between NJ.com and Reckon, a national news organization that covers the people powering change, the challenges shaping our time, and what it means for all of us.
The community of East Palestine, OH continues to reel one month after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in their town, causing a toxic chemical leak that contaminated the surrounding rivers, soil and air. The train was carrying a slew of chemicals including 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to make plastics.
The exposure to vinyl chloride and other chemicals in East Palestine led to the evacuation of over 2,000 people, and the death of over 43,000 fish and animals, according to officials. The National Transportation Safety Board released initial findings of its report on Feb. 23 stating that the derailment was “100% preventable.”
Twelve years before the disaster in East Palestine, a train carrying vinyl chloride derailed and crashed into a creek in Paulsboro, New Jersey while en route to a local refinery. The creek is a tributary to the Delaware River which serves as a source of drinking water for over 15 million people.
The train crash led to a chemical leak of 180,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, followed by a mass evacuation and multiple class action lawsuits against Conrail, the company that owned the train. Conrail is owned by Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the Ohio derailment.
Reckon spoke with Melissa Hazelton, who lived in Paulsboro with her wife and three children a few blocks from the creek at the time of the disaster. As she watches news reports of families in Ohio struggling to rebuild their lives, she reflects on the chemical leak that uprooted her family over a decade ago with a message to chemical companies: you are killing us.
This is Hazelton’s story in her own words. It has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity:
The day of the leak I was driving to work with my windows open. It was a warm day and I had my daughter in the back seat. As we pulled up to the railroad tracks, I saw some commotion and realized that the railroad bar was down but not blinking. Living in a town with a refinery, you get used to trains coming in and out and know how to go around them, but this was different.
All of a sudden, a guy in a vest came out of nowhere next to the creek and he just said, “You have to get away from here.”
So we left. When I got to my job, my wife called me and said that she got a notification from the school to come pick up the kids.
At the time, I was working at the water utility. As we watched the news, they started talking about a chemical called vinyl chloride. My boss, who was an engineer, immediately told me not to go home. They said that it could cause cancer and have long term effects on our health.
When my wife went to get my kids from school everyone was in a state of panic. We had never been evacuated before, and there was lots of conflicting information about where the evacuation zones were.
But this was airborne. Why would one block away need to leave but the one next to it was fine?
It was a sweet smell. There was a fog everywhere and you started to get this taste in your mouth. It’s hard to describe, but it was chemical. It was confusing because it smelled sweet but tasted bitter. Even the density of the air felt off, it almost felt heavier.
It was scary to evacuate. As a mother, I wanted to grab my children and run away. It’s a helpless out of control feeling. Can I bathe my children in the water? Can I go home? Will my animals die? Is it in my food?
Life in a refinery town
Paulsboro is a proud blue collar town. There are families with deep roots who have been there for many generations. It’s a place with a lot of parents who try to do the best they can with what they have.
It’s very difficult living near a refinery. There have been a lot of chemical releases in the air over the years. I drove a white car, so I could always see tiny flecks of oil left on my car. It would cover our lawn and leave residue on plant leaves. My dog developed a lot of skin issues and died of cancer.
You are in a constant state of worry. The high school is right next to the refinery and when you hear that there has been a chemical release, it causes panic. You feel stuck.
The chemical companies give a lot of money to local events and donate things like sports uniforms to the high school. It feels like it’s their way of trying to quiet everyone down.
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My message to chemical companies: you are killing us
When the derailment happened, they simply couldn’t do a mass evacuation. Most people didn’t have cars, and we don’t have a mass transport system in town. So what were people going to do, wait outside for a bus for an hour?
They told my family that we were at the beginning of the “safe zone” but I thought that was bull****. I think when you have something that is in the air—and we are right off the river—wind changes direction all the time.
We took the kids a half hour away to my mother-in-law’s house for a day. Like many families, I didn’t feel comfortable going back home, but we had to. We are not a rich community and folks had nowhere to go.
I feel a lot of empathy for what is happening in the community of East Palestine, OH. It’s really bad.
We’re not given information about what is on the train cars that come through our towns. There need to be tighter regulations. There needs to be a watchdog. Citizens need to see what’s going on.
I don’t believe a thing that these companies say. It’s in their best interests to minimize things, and keep things very quiet. This is big business and everyone knows it. They can do whatever they want. It’s like the wild west of regulations.
Just look at our world. Global warming is changing everything and I have no doubt in my mind that this is the cause and effect. How many releases have happened that we didn’t know about?
I have a grandchild now and I fear for him. What world are we handing him?
Will this give me and my family cancer? Are there mutations that will be passed on to my grandchild? Will children become orphans because of these chemical disasters?
The next generation has lived through catastrophes like these as kids. And my message to the chemical companies is this: they are coming for you. Our families are coming for you. You should be ashamed of yourselves. You are killing us all.
Melissa Hazelton is one of hundreds of Paulsboro residents and first responders who successfully sued Conrail following the chemical leak through class action lawsuits.
The Perspectives section at Reckon features voices, stories, and analysis from communities on the frontlines of the struggle for justice.