After derailment, toxic burn, student-athletes in East Palestine seek normalcy
East Palestine High School senior Owen Elliott poses for a portrait, Monday, March 6, 2023, in East Palestine, Ohio. Athletes are navigating spring sports following the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern freight train derailment. (AP Photo/Matt Freed)
Published Thursday, March 23, 2023 11:59AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, March 23, 2023 12:02PM EDT
There's the East Palestine High School baseball team learning the finer points of baserunning at one edge of Reid Memorial Stadium. At the other, a handful of sprinters dart through the mild March air, the blue parachutes attached to their waists mushrooming behind them as they pick up speed.
Same as it ever was at East Palestine as it transitions from winter to spring sports. Only, not really.
A little over a mile east of the small school — student population 285 — tucked near the Pennsylvania state line, cleanup crews are still dealing with the aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment. While no one was hurt, concerns over a potential explosion led state and local officials to approve releasing and burning toxic vinyl chloride from five tanker cars that forced the evacuations of half the village and closed schools for a week.
More than a month later, the cleanup is ongoing. The legal wrangling over who to blame just starting.
Workers in reflective yellow vests are everywhere you look. There are road closures and a seemingly never-ending series of press conferences and photo ops by state and federal officials, the CEO of rail operator Norfolk Southern, and politicians, including former President Donald Trump. Not to mention all kinds of interlopers — from media to attorneys to environmental activists — who have come to poke and prod a community that wouldn't mind simply getting on with things.
“Sometimes it’s like no offense to you guys, but like, when are we going to have our privacy back?” high jumper Mia Lee, who is a senior, told The Associated Press.
While the dark noxious plumes from the accident are gone, a sense of uncertainty remains.
Residents worried about lingering environmental and health impacts, and symptoms such as headaches and rashes, are being told their air and water are safe. Yet that hasn’t stopped the spread of what East Palestine athletic director Dwayne Pavkovich describes as “fearmongering” that has disrupted the school’s crowded spring sports schedule.
Nearly a dozen schools have pulled out of the series of invitational track meets East Palestine hosts. While Pavkovich stressed he’s not criticizing any school that opts not to come, he also pointed out that the school has provided a link to the results of the Environmental Protection Agency's daily air, water and soil tests in an effort to allay health concerns.
On Wednesday, the high school hosted a panel of scientific and health experts, and invited all of the local school districts. Pavkovich described it as a “proactive approach” in hopes of enticing more teams to compete.
When asked by administrators at other schools what they can do to help, his answer is simple: Come and play us. Give our athletes — particularly seniors who didn’t have a spring sports season as freshmen because of the COVID-19 pandemic — the same opportunities as everyone else.
“We want to create as much normalcy as possible,” he said.
It’s telling of the importance of athletics to East Palestine’s identity that none of the school’s spring sports lost a single player in the aftermath of the derailment.
For Owen Elliott, a golfer during the fall and a center — all 5-foot-10 of him — on the basketball team during the winter, these three months of baseball season represent the end of his competitive athletic career. An apprenticeship to become an electrician awaits the high school senior.
While Elliott believes East Palestine might not be the cleanest place in the world at the moment, he also doesn't have much of a choice. He can't tell you how safe it is. He can tell you this is his last chance to stand on a field next to his friends before the next chapter of his life begins.
“I want to play as many games as I can,” said Elliott. His final baseball season will begin Monday when East Palestine hosts Wellsville High at a turf field 5 miles (8 kilometers) up the road — and typically upwind — of the cleanup that is still likely months from being completed.
It's much the same for Lee, a two-time state qualifier in the high jump who is looking to make it three in her spring season. She's grateful for the opportunity to say goodbye the right way.
It’s an opportunity she wasn’t afforded at the end of basketball season when her Senior Night ceremony was wiped out by the school closure after the derailment. She hoped for another chance when the Bulldogs earned the right to host a playoff game, but their opponent opted to forfeit rather than travel to East Palestine.
“I understand they were scared,” said Lee, who had her Senior Night ceremony tucked into a boys’ basketball game. “But if we’re able to come to school that entire week and live here and, you know, everyone’s still here, I think they should have been able to come for a couple of hours to play a game.”
Her family moved into a house alongside the train tracks four years ago, 1.6 miles (2.6 kilometers) away from the derailment. She grew so used to the constant rumble of passing trains that she long ago tuned it out.
Until Feb. 3 anyway. Now, whenever she hears a big “thud” she reflexively heads to the window to check things out.
Being at the track — even if it's bartering with her coach in an attempt to get out of running — allows Lee to turn her focus away from everything else. The familiar rhythms of practice and the laughter of Lee's teammates make it easy to forget — for a couple of hours anyway — about the recently installed air quality monitor attached to a pole just outside the stadium, and the uncertainty of what comes next.
“Mentally, I'm fine,” Lee said. “But like if they said my season was cut, that would affect me. But nothing's going on right now. I think I'm OK."