‘If I don’t talk no one’s going to know’: Stories of pain from East Palestine move coalition members to action

By Steve Mellon
March 24, 2024
Lauri Harmon stepped from the crowd gathered in a community hall at the East Palestine Country Club around 2:30 on Saturday afternoon and told her story to a hushed crowd of about 80 people. Many had traveled from as far as California and Texas to hear stories like hers, and to offer their support.
Laurie, 48, a retired registered nurse, lives three blocks from the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, toxic train derailment that many residents believe poisoned the town.
“On the 12th, I started getting rashes,” she said, her tone matter-of-fact. “On May 1st, about the time they started digging up a pit and cleaning up, I started getting second-, third- and fourth-degree chemical burns. I had burns over 80% of my body. They burrow deep down in. It’s horrible. I was going to doctors, trying to get it figured out. Nobody knows; no one can tell me. I was diagnosed with systemic contact dermatitis due to chemical exposure. I have now lesions on my spine, cysts on my kidneys; I have kidney stones. On March 4, I had a heart attack. …”
She’s scheduled for heart surgery at Cleveland Clinic. She’s seeing seven doctors. Her medical bills total $500,000. She’s on Medicare and says she’ll have to pay 20% of that. To avoid the rashes, she quit going outside in September.
“I’m losing everything. I’m losing my home; I lost my relationship; I’m a foster parent. I lost my kids. This is more than one person can take. I just don’t even know what to say. I want to thank you guys for coming here. I wasn’t even going to come, because sometimes I feel I’m defeated, but I can’t feel that way, because if I don’t talk no one’s going to know. No one is going to know.”
Laurie’s story, and the stories of other East Palestine residents in attendance, moved the crowd, which included organizers and members from a number of unions, as well as several environmental activists, academics and some people who simply wanted to offer help to a community in crisis. Hours later, after a number of panel discussions and the performance of a song written about the East Palestine disaster by musician Mike Stout, they voted to take action.
The newly formed coalition, dubbed Justice for East Palestine Residents and Workers, determined they will travel to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 8 to further their demand that the federal government step in and make sure those affected by the derailment are provided with fully funded health care. They plan to involve union members, including those who represent workers at railroad companies, as well as environmentalists and members of other communities damaged by chemical contamination.
The coalition also determined to schedule a second conference in Iowa — the cause has been embraced by union organizers there; several traveled by bus to East Palestine to attend Saturday’s event — and to seek a meeting with the president of the AFL-CIO. Organizers want the federation of unions representing more than 12 million workers to support the coalition’s demand.
Below are a few highlights from Saturday’s conference.
We need to have medical monitoring and medical care for now and in the future, for ourselves, our children and their children. Our doctors still don’t know what to tell us. Studies have not been done on humans, at least for multiple chemical exposure. A year later, we still don’t know what was or still remains in our environment and in our homes that could be affecting us, because the science just isn’t there yet.
Monitoring and screening instruments cannot detect low enough levels of some of the chemicals we’ve been exposed to, and we still don’t know if there are any new chemicals that we don’t know about, that were created [by the burn-off], to know those effects on human beings. We were told last year by the CDC that all of us were exposed, but they don’t know what to do about what is or could be in our bodies. But they know how to treat the cancers it causes later. This to me is unacceptable.

— Christina Siceloff, who lives in South Beaver, which was in the path of the cloud created by the burn-off of vinyl chloride on Feb. 6, 2023
I live about half a mile from the derailment site, in a house that six generations of my family have lived in. I’ve lived in it for 60 years. Just this last week we made the realization that…