Krissy Ferguson hasn’t lived in the only house she’s known for more than a year, since a train derailed less than a mile away, releasing toxic chemicals into the creek that runs beneath her basement.
When President Joe Biden visits East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday, she has a simple message for him: “If I meet President Biden, what I want to ask him is to help those who need to get out.”
Norfolk Southern, the railroad company whose train was responsible, insists it is safe for families to return home after spending more than $100 million on cleanup operations.
But Ferguson, 49, said no one knows what the long-term health implications might be, nor can anything erase the nightmares that wake her up with images of her elderly mother and stepfather dying from toxic exposure.
He wants the train company to buy his house so he can put the whole episode behind him.
Krissy Ferguson’s home in East Palestine sits just above Sulfur Run Creek, which was contaminated when a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed less than a mile away.
Ferguson has been told repeatedly that his house is safe enough to return to, but the Environmental Protection Agency has posted signs around the creek warning people to stay away.
And she said she was grateful for the president’s visit, as long as he used it to listen to residents and not simply use the disaster as a backdrop for his campaign.
“I’m saying we screamed at the top of our lungs,” he said. ‘We seem to have cried to anyone who would listen to us. We need help.’
A year later, she, her parents and daughter live in a rented house to avoid the watery eyes and burning throat they experienced at home. Norfolk Southern is footing the bill.
The derailment forced thousands of people to flee their homes near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.
Almost everyone has retreated. But a year later, residents are still concerned about the lingering effect of the toxic chemicals that were spilled and the way emergency workers treated hundreds of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen.
Rescuers used a controlled burn to incinerate much of the dangerous cargo and avoid the risk of a deadly explosion.
But that has raised more questions about the unknown compounds left behind the plumes of thick black smoke.
In a town already being hollowed out by economic stagnation, where its main street seems to have as many empty storefronts as shops, it only added to the sense that a community was being left behind.
Adding to the frustrations was the absence of Biden, a president who long saw himself as a “working-class Joe” and has embraced the idea of being a “comforter-in-chief.”
President Joe Biden will visit East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday to see the cleanup efforts for himself. Residents say they are still suffering from the ill effects and need more federal help.
Their lives changed on February 3, 2023. A drone photograph shows parts of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed outside the East Palestine village last year.
Sulfur Run Creek flows through a culvert beneath three houses on the edge of East Palestine
Ferguson’s parents moved into the house in 1970. Today it is empty like the neighboring houses.
Instead, it was former President Donald Trump who highlighted the plight of the working-class village. He visited the country three weeks after the derailment and arrived before Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
In addition to buying Big Macs for first responders and delivering his branded water, Trump said, “What this community needs now is not excuses and all the other things they’ve been hearing, but answers and results.”
By contrast, Biden fell behind. Officials insisted he would visit them, but never set a date. Until now.
He also failed to declare a “major disaster declaration” that would have freed up more federal resources for the community recovery effort.
On Friday, Trump supporters plan to welcome Biden’s visit with a rally. A day earlier, a truck drove up and down Main Street with two ‘F*** Joe Biden’ flags fluttering in the breeze.
Jess Conard, whose house overlooks the train tracks, sees things differently. He has no time for the cynicism of some locals who say Biden is only coming because it’s an election year.
Her four-year-old son was diagnosed with asthma after the controlled burn sent its black cloud into the sky.
‘This is not a political issue. “This is a people issue,” he stated. “And we must recognize that there are serious medical concerns for the people in this community and the surrounding areas who have been affected.”
‘East Palestine Strong’ are spread throughout the town, and this week they are joining in with Valentine’s greetings.
She changed her career from being a medical speech-language pathologist to campaigning to reduce plastic use.
In a letter to Biden sent Thursday, she and dozens of other activists demanded more federal help, testing indoor air in homes, providing long-term medical help and blocking financial resources so families like the Fergusons could afford move.
He said he wanted the disaster in East Palestine to be a catalyst for change, reducing the amount of hazardous materials being transported on rickety lines.
For its part, Norfolk and Southern said it had met its obligations with a program that seeks to make up the difference if residents find they can’t get market value when they sell their homes.
“The air and water have been continuously monitored since the derailment in and around the community and it remains safe to return home,” a spokesperson said.
That’s not enough, Conard said.
“I think Norfolk Southern is doing what they were told to do,” he said. “I don’t believe in any way that they are doing the right thing, which is what they promised to do.”
Conard and other activists sent a letter to Biden on Thursday outlining what the federal government could do to ensure the safety of people in East Palestine.
A large plume of smoke rises over East Palestine, Ohio, last year after a controlled detonation of a portion of a derailed Norfolk Southern train to burn dangerous chemicals.
Ferguson had always known that his house was built on Sulfur Run Creek, named for the way the sewers flowed into it. She played in the sewer when she was a child and as a mother with her own son.
From time to time, the basement would flood when the water level rose.
‘We take care of it. “We knew not to leave things on the ground, but up high,” she said. “But the water wasn’t contaminated then. It didn’t make us sick.
Since the disaster, he can’t stand being inside the cozy two-story building.
‘I felt a tingling sensation on my lips and tongue. I was stumbling and staggering, like I was drunk because you weren’t drinking anything. And your eyes would water,” he said.
The hardest part about staying away, she said, was the impact on her mother, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and her 90-year-old stepfather, who was confused by the rented accommodation.
She just wants them to settle somewhere permanent, somewhere far from the site of the derailment and its aftermath.
“I can’t live here anymore,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. ‘Is not safe.’