by Alexa Schwerha
While a small Ohio town works to recover after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed earlier this month and polluted the air and water, local shop owners are worried about the financial impact that the disaster will have on their businesses as customers appear to shy away from the market district.
A Norfolk Southern train carrying harmful chemicals including vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3 and residents were ordered to temporarily evacuate before a controlled burn was performed on Feb. 6 and released the toxins into the environment. Local business owners were forced to shutter their doors and many continue to see a decline in customers now three weeks after the crash.
“The businesses are hurting,” Don Elzer, who owns several local businesses with his wife Diana, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “The stigma of the situation, if not the reality, is keeping customers away.”
The local McDonald’s closed for six days after the derailment, costing workers wages that the business is working to rectify, Steven Telischak, owner and operator, told the DCNF. He explained that the store has had to replace products that expired during the closure and replace the water and air filters, which comes with a costly price tag.
“It’s going to affect everyone and if it affects one business, it’s going to affect every business, and that’s what I worry about, and we want to make sure that that doesn’t happen,” Telischak said. “We’ve been working very hard to get businesses to come into town … and make the town prosperous, but it’s all up in the air right now with what happens.”
The town buzzed on Wednesday ahead of President Donald Trump’s visit to East Palestine, during which he went to the McDonald’s to buy meals for local first responders. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg met with local officials in town on Thursday, and state politicians have made numerous appearances since the derailment.
“We’re stressed out, but we made it and since then we’ve been very busy with all the activity in town,” Telischak told the DCNF.
Some businesses lined along the town’s main road remain closed, the DCNF observed. Both Clip-n-Claws, which does pet grooming, and Mama’s Attic, a local shop, have yet to reopen and the former has a sign posted on its window that reads “closed until further notice due to train derailment.”
Mama’s Attic plans to re-open Feb. 28, according to its Facebook page.
The Elzers own Sutherin Greenhouse which is located nearly 3 miles from the crash site. Diana Elzer said that they have had five customers since the derailment, while Don Elzer added that only one customer visited during Valentine’s Day which is usually “one of [their] big days.”
“There’s the aspect of trying to clean up the environment, and then the long term, that’s how we’re affected,” Don Elzer told the DCNF. “I think a lot has to do with how well we respond. What’s our recovery plan look like? How well can we market the town? That’s going to determine how long and how devastating this is.”
The couple also owns several other properties in East Palestine that they intended to sell, but those plans could be put on the back burner as the state of property value remains unclear, Diana Elzer said.
“Property values are going to decline greatly,” Don Elzer concurred. “It’s all supply and demand.”
Chris Sigler, an East Palestine resident, previously told the DCNF that the declining property value of the town was one of his initial concerns after the derailment.
“Everybody’s worried, myself included and my wife and family members, and everybody’s just worried about the lasting effects of this,” he said. “You don’t know until every day goes by, and you start realizing that more and more.”
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested more than 550 houses as of Feb. 20 and found no overt levels of vinyl chloride and the municipal water testing detected no concern, according to its website. Residents remain skeptical about what could unfold in the coming years.
“We don’t know the long-term effects of what’s happened here, but if we get the information out there, they’re telling us now everything’s safe here. If it truly is, come back,” Don Elzer told the DCNF.
Diana Elzer shared that she used tap water in her coffee and to brush her teeth, and currently feels comfortable, but that it could change in the next “month, two months, two years.” Erin Brockovich, a prominent environmentalist, told the DCNF on Thursday that the road to recovery could take “decades.”
“If people want to come to East Palestine to shop, we’re still here and we’re struggling,” Diana Elzer said. “We would be incredibly humbled for people to not be afraid to come back.”
The residents continue to stick together after the crash, Telischak told the DCNF.
“We care about one another and we hope that the right things are done to get things cleaned up so we can get life back to normal again,” he said. “We’re just worried about them doing the right things, the testing, the ground cleaning, getting all these chemicals out of the area and doing the best they can. Just don’t leave us hanging.”
The Biden-Harris administration announced Friday that a coalition of agencies including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will go door-to-door beginning Saturday to deliver information and resources to residents, according to an EPA press release obtained by the DCNF.
The EPA also set up a hotline to provide residents and businesses services including “guidance for accessing ongoing air-monitoring, water sampling, as well as information about scheduling cleaning services,” the press release reads.
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Alexa Schwerha is a reporter at Daily Caller News Foundation.
Photo “East Palestine, Ohio” by Doug Kerr. CC BY-SA 2.0.