Authorities in East Palestine, Ohio, tell TIME they have received no reports of threats against Norfolk Southern employees. The revelation is significant because the railroad company, which is at the center of a hazardous crash in the town, cited “threats” to employees if they attended a town hall event on Wednesday night.
Community leaders say they wanted Norfolk Southern at the meeting to address people’s concerns about the air and water quality following the Feb. 3 train derailment.
“Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties. With that in mind, Norfolk Southern will not be in attendance this evening,” the Norfolk Southern statement said.
But an employee who answered the number for the East Palestine Ohio Police Department tells TIME that they have not gotten any reports of threats against Norfolk Southern employees. Officers were in attendance at the town hall, and when asked whether there was any threat to violence at the event, the employee said: “No, none at all.”
On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern train 32N was en route from Conway, Penn., to Matteson, Ill., when it derailed in East Palestine. Nearly one-third of the train’s cars went off the track, with several of them containing hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride.
The toxic chemical exposure, combined with first responders burning the chemical tanks to avoid an explosion has become a national scandal. Residents report experiencing headaches and nausea and nearby animals are reportedly getting sick. On Feb. 5, a mandatory evacuation was declared that ordered the nearly 5,000 residents of East Palestine to vacate their homes. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine has yet to declare a state of emergency, despite public pressure to do so.
“We will not walk away, East Palestine,” wrote Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw in an open letter to the town on the morning after the town hall meeting.
The Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office said it assisted the East Palestine Police Department, but directed any questions about potential threats to East Palestine police. When Norfolk Southern was asked for any evidence related to their threat claims, a spokesperson said in an email, “We are unable to comment further about security concerns.”
However, the spokesperson pointed to the company’s social media posts. A review of dozens of comments on Norfolk Southern tweets showed lots of frustration—and one illustrated meme of a guillotine.
East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway was in attendance at the town hall, where he raised his frustrations with Norfolk Southern’s absence. “I’m concerned. It’s not Norfolk Southern here, it’s the EPA [U.S. Environment Protection Agency] and the people who have been working with us trying to get our citizens back into their home’s safe.”
The EPA said earlier this week that since the fires went out at the chemical tanks, they have detected no health concerns in their air monitoring. As of now, they’ve not identified any vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride in the 459 homes they’ve screened.
Conaway says he wants answers for his constituents, and for himself, as he lives two blocks from where the crash occured. “They screwed up our town, they’re going to fix it,” he said. “If they don’t, I’ll be the first one calling all you back to do this all over again.”
On Feb. 8, days after the chemical spill, East Palestine police arrested News Nation reporter Evan Lambert at a press conference after claiming the journalist wouldn’t remain quiet when asked. Lambert has since been released and all charges were dropped.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the matter and Norfolk Southern says they will fully cooperate. They’re also facing several federal and county court lawsuits in relation to the derailment.
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