National News

Pastor Hopes Ohio Derailment Toxins Won’t Doom an At-Risk Community

A burnt container is seen in East Palestine, Ohio, Feb. 15, 2023, at the site of a train derailment.(Photo: OSV News)

EAST PALESTINE, Ohio — Now about two weeks removed from witnessing billowing black smoke from a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, the pastor of the town’s lone Catholic church fears the fallout could accelerate the decline of an already small and aging community.

“It very well could,” Father David Misbrener, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes in East Palestine, told The Tablet. “Myself, no, I’m not afraid to go to the church and go to people’s homes, but our concern, and the residents’ concern, will be the future. What’s going to happen?”

Father Misbrener is pastor of both Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Jude’s Catholic Church in nearby Columbiana. He lives at the latter, and that’s where he was at the time of the Feb. 3 train derailment. After finding out what happened the next morning, he said he drove to Our Lady of Lourdes — only about a quarter of a mile from the incident — where he saw the smoke and smelled chemicals in the air.

Residents in a one-to-two-mile radius of the crash were ordered to evacuate on Feb. 6, when officials carried out a controlled burn of vinyl chloride, a gas used to make plastic, that was carried in five of the derailed cars. In all, 50 cars were damaged, 11 of which contained hazardous materials, including the five that carried vinyl chloride. Evacuated residents were allowed to return home on Feb. 8.

Still, many in the town of fewer than 5,000 people remain uneasy about the safety of the town’s air, water, and soil. Father Misbrener said the Our Lady of Lourdes church hall has become a distribution center, especially for bottled water, but also food, diapers, and even clothes for anyone who needs them.

Father Misbrener added that tests of the church’s water and air both came back “OK.”

“But you know, you have to take that at face value or trust value,” Father Misbrener said. “Whether or not the water’s OK, hopefully, we can trust our government officials. I don’t know.”

East Palestine residents sought answers from local, state, and federal officials on the safety of the town’s air and water at a Feb. 16 town hall held at the local high school. Frustrated residents reportedly voiced their concerns and frustrations about the incident in addition to seeking answers.

Residents were cleared to drink village water on Feb. 15, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. Reports indicate officials reassured residents that the water was safe to drink at the town hall and further reassured them that even if a bad smell persists, that doesn’t mean the air isn’t safe.

Norfolk Southern Corporation, which owns the trains that derailed, angered residents when its representatives did not show up at the town hall. The next morning, Feb. 16, the company’s CEO Alan Shaw published a letter to the East Palestine community with a pledge to “help make things right.”

Shaw wrote that crews are currently cleaning the crash site “thoroughly, responsibly, and safely.” He said that the company has also implemented a comprehensive water, air, and soil testing program and has established a $1 million community support fund “as a down payment on our commitment to rebuild.

“My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Shaw said, later adding that “we will not let you down.”

The U.S. EPA administrator, Michael Regan, also visited East Palestine on Feb. 16.

Norfolk Southern Corporation didn’t respond to The Tablet’s request for comment, and the Environmental Protection Agency declined to comment. A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board referred The Tablet to a Feb. 14 press release, noting that “it is still very early into the investigation, and that is the information available at this time.”

Father Misbrener said the Our Lady of Lourdes community celebrated Mass this past weekend after it was canceled the weekend before because of the evacuation. He said the parishioners he spoke to weren’t overly concerned with the situation but acknowledged “as more and more of this is coming out, we have to weigh what the scientists and others are saying.”

The pastor’s main focus in the immediate future is the spiritual well-being of his parishioners, who he said are predominantly senior citizens on fixed incomes. The church has about 180 active households.

“I’m no scientist. I’m the parish priest. I’ve got to just take care of the spiritual aspect, my parishioners,” Father Misbrener said. “I just want to be there for my people as far as their spiritual needs are concerned.”

Bishop David Bonnar of Youngstown is scheduled to visit Our Lady of Lourdes and celebrate Mass in a few weeks. For now, Father Misbrener said he hopes people won’t forget about East Palestine.

“The outreach right now has been very, very generous, and I just hope that people aren’t going to forget that. Hopefully, they’ll be able to get this mess cleaned, and I just pray that there aren’t residual effects for years to come. You never know,” Father Misbrener said.