By Grace Springer/Kent State NewsLab
Candy Kiehl has lived in the same home in East Palestine her entire life. The house began as her grandparents’ home, then her parents’ and eventually hers.
But for the last eight months, Kiehl has lived in a Best Western Plus in Columbiana, about ten miles from East Palestine, only returning every two weeks to do laundry.
Now, she doesn’t know if it will ever be safe to come home.
“I won’t even take my grandkids over to my house,” she said. “I’m afraid.”
Kiehl worries about toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, that spilled and burned after a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed Feb. 3. Residents living in a one-mile radius were evacuated that night. Three days later, the evacuation area was increased to two miles when officials performed a controlled burn of vinyl chloride at the derailment site that created a huge plume of smoke over the area.
Norfolk Southern took over remediation of the derailment area, along with the streams involved, with supervision from the EPA. The train company is covering the cost of living for many displaced residents, including Kiehl.
But during the summer, the company began to crack down on who is receiving assistance. While Kiehl is confident she will be able to stay longer, the change has made her uneasy.
One such couple, Roger and Janet Walker, were living at the Davis Motel in North Lima until Norfolk Southern stopped paying for their room in late June. The Walkers said they remain in fear of contamination that might be present at their home, but they live on Roger’s disability payments and could not afford the motel room on their own.
Norfolk Southern previously said it would continue to pay for the relocation of residents within the remediation zone. It did not respond to repeated requests for comment on why they stopped paying for the Walkers’ temporary housing.
Roger said he reached out to federal lawmakers for help. He said he won’t be quiet about his situation.
“I’m going to stick up for myself,” he said. “I’m going to stick up for my wife and that upsets people. I’m happy about it.”
Those still receiving assistance, like Kiehl, said they plan to stay at the hotel where they feel safe.
When she goes back to East Palestine, Kiehl said her lips and tongue tingle. While the EPA says air sampling has come back safe, everything unknown remains her biggest concern.
“We live behind the one creek that is contaminated,” she said. “How safe is my house? What else are you hiding? Why aren’t you telling us everything? It comes out in pieces, so you don’t know. You wait and see.”
Even though she worries for the health of her family, Kiehl struggles with the idea of leaving East Palestine for good.
“That was my family’s home. My grandparents’ home, my mom and dad’s home, my sister’s home. We bought it. We fixed it up,” she said. “How do you walk away from that? It’s where my mom passed away, it’s where my dad got sick and there’s so many memories. It’s hard.”
‘This is our family now’
While living at the Best Western, Kiehl found herself forming a new community with other residents in the same situation.
Mike Dugan, who lives less than a quarter of a mile from the derailment site in East Palestine, started daily meetings in the hotel lobby.
“I originated that. I said ‘I got to do something,’ so I told these guys, ‘Hey, 8 o’clock: coffee, hot chocolate, downstairs,’” he said. “So we all started collecting downstairs. Even some of the housekeepers, when they’re done with work, they come back.”
They talk about “everything under the sun” at the daily meetings. They catch up on what goes on in town and discuss new updates on the remediation.
Kiehl said this is the only good thing that came out of the derailment.
“I knew Mike from walking, but now we all become family,” she said.
Dugan returns home about once a week to mow his grass and feed his cat, but he chooses to live in the hotel because of fears of long-term health effects.
“You have that unknown in the back of your head all the time,” he said. “Am I going to be sick five years, 10 years down the road from this crap? We don’t know.”
Christina Dilworth lives a half mile from the derailment site. She stayed in her home following the disaster, occasionally living with her boyfriend, whose home is another mile out.
Dilworth began experiencing symptoms early on, but thought they would go away when the site was cleaned up. Around late April she finally decided she couldn’t wait.
“I had this really bad rash on my face and I got sick. I got nauseated, I got headaches,” she said. “I got so sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
Since moving into the Best Western, she has seen a dramatic improvement.
“I feel so much better,” she said in May. “My face is clearing up, it’s still a little bit there, but it’s so much smoother. I’m not nauseated, I haven’t had any headaches.”
Dilworth said she appreciates how Norfolk Southern covered her expenses, but she never imagined needing that kind of help.
“I think they’re trying, in a sense,” she said. “Still, it’s kind of frustrating that we have to depend on them to give us a place to live and food, you know, because we didn’t ask for any of this.”
Dilworth said she believes Norfolk Southern started cracking down on relocation payments because of people who abused it and weren’t actually living in hotels. She said she was reassured at an EPA meeting in July that her stay will continue to be covered.
Dilworth estimates around 10 people from East Palestine remain at the Best Western. At its peak, she said she believes around half of the 52-room-hotel housed residents of East Palestine.
Dilworth said what has been most frustrating is not having all the answers about what will happen in town.
“I’m nosy, I’ll drive over by the site and say ‘Hey, what you doing there?’ Some will tell us exactly what’s going on and other ones, ‘We’re not allowed to tell you,’” she said. “It’s like, this is our town. We have a right to know.”
On top of unanswered questions, the timeline of the remediation is constantly changing. When crews started digging up contaminated dirt in March, residents expected it to be done within a few weeks, but eight months in, it is still unclear when the site will be clean.
Kiehl, Dugan and Dilworth sat together for breakfast at the Best Western on a Thursday morning in May. They talked, laughed and teased each other, despite being brought together under the worst of circumstances.
“We’ve all bonded,” Dilworth said. “We’ve all been friends, but not like now. Now we’ve become really close.”
“This is our family now,” Kiehl said.
This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative newsroom staffed by Kent State students.