EAST PALESTINE, Ohio - Worried residents packed a high school auditorium Friday as activist Erin Brockovich and attorneys warned of long-term health and environmental dangers from chemicals released after a fiery train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Brooke Hofmeister, a mother of two young children, said she feared for their health and felt worse than before about the situation after hearing the presentation.
"The truth is pretty scary," the 29-year-old said.
She and her husband, Cory Hofmeister, said they didn't feel safe in their hometown and were uncertain about whether to remain, echoing concerns raised by many who attended the two-hour session. It was sponsored by East Palestine Justice, a group formed by Brockovich, lawyers and scientific and medical experts.
No one was injured when 38 Norfolk Southern cars derailed in a fiery, mangled mess on the outskirts of town Feb. 3. As fears grew about a potential explosion, officials seeking to avoid an uncontrolled blast had the area evacuated and opted to release and burn toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending flames and black smoke billowing into the sky again.
Environmental activist Erin Brockovich (C-L) speaks to concerned residents as she hosts a town hall at East Palestine High School on February 24, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
More than 2,000 people registered to attend the meeting Friday, with the crowd spilling into the school gymnasium. Brockovich, who gained fame and was portrayed in a film for battling Pacific Gas & Electric Co. over groundwater contamination in Hinkley, California, told the audience to fight for recognition and trust their instincts.
"You want to be heard, but you're going to be told it's safe, you're going to be told not to worry," Brockovich said. "That's just rubbish, because you're going to worry. Communities want to be seen and heard."
Health and environmental risks will remain for years, she said.
Residents from East Palestine and surrounding areas wait in line for the town hall event held by environmental activist Erin Brockovich on February 24, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
"Don’t expect somebody to give you the answers. Unfortunately, this is not a quick fix. This is going to be a long game."
Brockovich and her associates are among a number of legal teams that have come to the area offering to talk with residents about potential litigation over the derailment. Several lawsuits already have been filed.
Federal and state officials have repeatedly said it’s safe for evacuated residents to return to the area and that air testing in the town and inside hundreds of homes hasn’t detected any concerning levels of contaminants from the fires and burned chemicals. The state says the local municipal drinking water system is safe, and bottled water is available while testing is conducted for those with private wells.
Despite those assurances and a bevy of news conferences and politician visits -- including this week from top officials in the Biden administration and former President Donald Trump -- many residents still express a sense of mistrust or have lingering questions about what they have been exposed to and how it will impact the future of their families and their communities.
Residents listen as environmental activist Erin Brockovich speaks during a town hall at East Palestine High School on February 24, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
At Friday night's meeting, attorney Mikal Watts urged people to get their blood and urine tested promptly, saying the results could help establish whether they have been exposed to dangerous substances and could be helpful if they take legal action.
"The court of public opinion and a court of law are different," he said. "We need evidence."
The Hofmeisters were among local residents who said afterward they intended to be tested.
Greg McCormick, 40, a lifelong East Palestine resident who was among those evacuated after the train, said he would consider testing.
"I'm just lost, like everyone else here," he said. "We don't know where we're going, what we're doing. ... We're about to lose our Mayberry, but we're sure as hell going to fight for it."