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CW: Environmental Justice Disaster We made sure River Valley Organizing (RVO) was okay with the contents of this post. Title graphic by Young Grguras.

“It’s been a month since our lives were turned upside down, but we still aren’t getting what we need from the government or Norfolk Southern. People are still scared and unsure what the future holds. We heard the people of this community loud and clear: they want safe homes, and independent environmental and health testing.”

RVO organizer and East Palestine resident Jami Cozza. Read more here.

Living close to a railroad used to be a source of enchantment for me. The sound of the trains chugging along the tracks felt like a symphony; they harmonized with the flowing river in the heart of an area that was once a bustling, industrial hub just outside of Pittsburgh. As the area has slowed down and entered a phase of rejuvenation, I have relished being a part of the deindustrialization and contributing to the growth of a community searching for its new identity. The possibility of being a part of this is exhilarating, and I often find myself swept away by the excitement of it all. However, despite the allure, there was always something that snapped me back to reality.

One month ago, Norfolk Southern Railroad company caused a chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio. People in the community haven’t been told if their water is safe to drink and people have been getting sick. This is just the beginning of what will be years of health effects on the community. River Valley Organizing is a local grassroots organization that has been busy mitigating this disaster.

The derailment struck close to home as it occurred less than an hour away from where I grew up and where my parents still reside. Fortunately, they were just outside of the impact zone. What’s most upsetting is that the toxic chemicals that were passing through residential areas were on their way to becoming plastic. The impact of this disaster serves as a stark and constant reminder of the potential and everlasting hazards that plastic causes to communities.

Our STOP program was collaborating with River Valley Organizing and had a call planned the week after the crash. I almost canceled our conversation because of the crash, but Amanda said that we could still have our chat and was excited about our program. After this call, it was solidified that Amanda would be one of our new mentors for our STOP program, holding years of wisdom to share with the next generation of Appalachian organizers. Amanda and I had a good conversation, but something she said keeps coming back into my mind. She said “I don’t know if our community will exist anymore”.

Folks in the community will tell you, as Amanda told me, this wasn’t an unexpected ‘accident’ like the railroad has been advertising. The community has been naming this possibility for years. A perfect storm was brewing: labor rules around railroad workers had been rolled back, EPA restrictions over the last many years have been rolled back, and the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, has had numerous ‘accidents’ in the last decade. They are notorious for putting profit over people; this isn’t the first time I’ve personally organized against them.

Last February, following the collapse of a huge bridge a couple miles from my house, a bridge two blocks from my house was shut down for safety concerns. This bridge connects two sides of my small town, and connects me to the busway. My travel time to the busway doubled, and folks were cut off from access to stores and the farmer’s market I run. Last June, Swissvale’s first Pride Parade actually stopped and danced on this bridge. It turned out that the bridge, which had been in disrepair for years, is owned by Norfolk Southern. Our council was in charge of ground-level maintenance, but Norfolk Southern was to maintain the integrity and underside of the bridge. They didn’t. I heard rumors that Norfolk Southern was actually hoping this bridge would be demolished in some way, so they can run double-decker trains through my community. I ran a campaign with some local friends to get the bridge reopened to pedestrians, many of which also used it as a connector to the busway. We won that campaign but the bridge is still closed to car traffic. Norfolk Southern has been quiet about their timeline to repair the bridge.

The weeks following the derailment, I kept waking up to the screeching of trains on the tracks less than a block away. Sometimes there wasn’t even a train and I was just hearing screeching that wasn’t there. I’m afraid my community will be next. I’ve worked hard for the community I’ve built here and am terrified at what can be taken away in a moment.

I’m so tired. I’m so tired of corporations getting to cause these huge impacts on our lives, and many times even profit off of other folks’ despair (Norfolk Southern’s income was a record-making 4.8 billion in 2022). It makes me so frustrated and so angry. But this drives my fight, and I don’t think it will ever go away. We will continue to work towards a better future despite these setbacks and we hold close the friends that we make along the way, like Amanda.

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