By Chris Moon
First Church of Christ in East Palestine, Ohio, is pitching in to help its community as the town continues to recover from a toxic train derailment earlier this month.
The church this week is hosting a health assessment clinic for community members who are concerned their health was compromised by the catastrophe. The clinic is sponsored by the Ohio Department of Health.
The opening of the clinic Tuesday coincided with visits to the town from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan, and U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio.
And more excitement is coming. Former President Donald Trump is slated to visit East Palestine on Wednesday, and environmental activist Erin Brockovich is expected later in the week.
“It’s been hectic,” said Bob Helbeck, who has served with First Church of Christ since 1976, becoming senior minister in 1978.
The church is hosting the health assessment clinic because it has one of the largest gathering spaces in town. Community members must make appointments to visit with health staff who have set up shop in an education building at First Church of Christ.
The hope is that residents who have medical concerns related to the train derailment will have their medical questions answered.
East Palestine is a town of about 5,000 people just west of the Ohio-Pennsylvania line.
The 50-car train derailment rocked the town on Feb. 3. About 20 of the derailed cars contained hazardous materials.
Several train cars burned, and there have been ongoing concerns about water and air quality in the community. Government officials have said the water and air have tested well. But that hasn’t resolved everyone’s concerns, Helbeck said.
“It’s anxiety. People don’t believe the government,” he said. “It’s scaring people.”
Still, Helbeck complimented the EPA. He said the federal agency has a mobile air testing unit in the community, and it has tested air quality in 500 homes there.
He said the railroad company, Norfolk Southern, gave each resident in the area a $1,000 “inconvenience fee.” The railroad also is expected to remove contaminated soil from the derailment site.
Helbeck is choosing to focus on the positives. If the derailment had occurred a half-mile sooner—in East Palestine proper—it would have caused much more damage. It could have caused gas stations to explode, he said.
“The first thing is to be thankful in all circumstances,” he said. “Look at what we can be thankful for. We didn’t have anyone killed—no one hurt.”
OFFERS OF HELP
Helbeck also said the church has been getting offers of support from people all across the country. The church is handing out water and other supplies that have been dropped off at the building.
“They [the church’s members] are really just kicking in and really helping,” Helbeck said.
First Church of Christ also has established a relief fund to help community members in need. (Here’s a link to contribute.)
Helbeck said the church is getting about 50 calls a day. He said he’s gotten calls from almost every state.
“A guy called from Long Island and wanted to bring us water in his pickup truck,” Helbeck said.
On the negative side, East Palestine has been “swarmed” with news reporters looking for stories, Helbeck said. The police have been keeping reporters away from the church where people are picking up supplies.
Lawyers also have been in town. Some attorneys, Helbeck said, were outside of hotels as they looked for residents who were waiting out evacuation orders.
Looking forward, Helbeck expects property values in East Palestine to dip. He said local businesses also are likely to suffer as people balk at buying products—especially food products—from East Palestine. He said a local seller of honey already has closed up shop.
Helbeck said some people are avoiding the town. A basketball team even declined to come play in East Palestine.
For the church’s part, Helbeck is hoping the disruption is short-lived.
First Church of Christ averages just over 200 people at its weekend services. The church had seen a big dip in attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic and is just getting back to its pre-pandemic attendance levels.
The first Sunday after the derailment, which occurred on a Friday, the church canceled its services. Services have since resumed.
“It’s always something,” Helbeck said. “But we are getting back.”
Chris Moon is a pastor and writer living in Redstone, Colo.