To Breathe Again: Living Along Sulphur Run
By Matthew Chasney
Sulphur Run flows parallel to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks on the eastern side of the village of East Palestine, Ohio. It dips under the tracks to the south side of the line where it cuts a course through a quiet, working-class neighborhood, then through downtown, on toward the city park where it merges with Leslie Run. From there it flows into the north fork of the Little Beaver River which is a tributary of the Ohio River.
When a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, derailed on February 3rd, the creek was a natural drainage basin for the toxic runoff that was released from the car. The subsequent vent and burn of the derailed cars made a massive smoke plume that was visible for miles.
The creek is the most enduring and visible evidence of the derailment. Weeks after the wreck the creek still smells intensely like chemicals despite the efforts of environmental remediation crews. Furthermore, the Ohio EPA collected thousands of dead fish from Sulphur Run and Leslie Run.
For the residents of East Palestine that live along its banks, they must contend with a stark question – stay and risk getting sicker or leave everything behind.
Gary Taylor and Tracy Wright live in a cozy home on Rebecca Street where the creek enters a culvert directly below their house. Gary is blind and Tracy has multiple sclerosis. Neither of them had family that could house them and their cats long term during the evacuation. Before the wreck Gary found a new job in Butler County, PA. They plan to leave as soon as they feasibly can.
Gary and Tracy’s house on the culvert.
Environmental remediation crews working to clean Sulphur Run where it enters downtown.
Courtney Miller tosses a minnow trap into Sulphur Run. In three weeks of testing she hasn’t turned up any living aquatic life. She bought her home on East Taggert Street four years ago and planned to turn it into a self-sufficient haven with chicken coops and gardens. It was heaven for her and her two children until February 3rd. Since the wreck she has been staying with a friend in Pittsburgh. Her kids have been living part time with their father in Chester, WV and commuting to her in Pittsburgh.
Since the spill, a video of Courtney showing an oily substance floating from the bottom of the creek has gone viral and she’s made the rounds in the media. She has been suffering from sore throats, headaches, and difficulty breathing. She’s angry and she intends to hold Norfolk Southern accountable. She plans to move permanently and leave everything if she has to. I asked what her next move is. “To breathe again,” she replied.
Volunteers distributing bottled water to East Palestine residents on Market street.
Danny and Karen Bostwick purchased their vacation cottage along Sulphur Run instead of going on a honeymoon. They liked the idea of having a small town escape that was close to their home in Cleveland. Danny returned to the cottage and couldn’t stay in it longer than fifteen minutes before feeling ill and leaving. The Bostwicks are weighing their options, but they accept that they too may have to leave.
Creek bed and water samples collected by the Bostwicks. East Palestine residents complain that the chemicals are settling on the creek bed and that the remediation efforts are ineffective.
Danny and Karen enjoy a fire in their backyard along the creek.
Matthew Chasney is a Cleveland-based photographer. He is team oriented, has great attention to detail and is proficient in the Microsoft suite.