- Associated Press - Friday, February 24, 2023

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.

“I feel worse,” said Brooke Hofmeister, a mother of two young children who said she feared for their health. “The truth is pretty scary.”

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.

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.

“Don’t expect somebody to give you the answers. Unfortunately, this is not a quick fix. This is going to be a long game.”

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.”

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