Jessica Conard of East Palestine has become a reluctant community advocate

‘We’ve been robbed of our peace of mind. And we’re in this position now because Norfolk Southern puts profits over people and they’ve caused this environmental disaster,’ she said

By: - March 23, 2023 4:15 pm

Jessca Conrad, of East Palestine, Ohio, talks to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio (Photo courtesy of Erin Conrad).

(*This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. on Thursday, 3/20./23 to correct Jessica Conrad’s name)

EAST PALESTINE, OHIO – Jessica Conard has lived In East Palestine, Ohio most of her life, and was used to trains passing by not far from the home where she lives with her husband and three of their children. 

When a Norfolk Southern train derailed there on Feb. 3, Conard said she knew it was a big deal, but didn’t realize how big a deal it was going to become, and how it would affect her family and her community. 

After fighting off a respiratory illness in the days after the derailment — she said it was officially diagnosed as sinusitis and an ear infection but suspects it may have been caused by the railroad’s controlled release of vinyl chloride on Feb. 6 — Conard said she stepped into the role of community advocate. 

She said she felt there wasn’t enough information about what was happening and whether it was safe for residents near the tracks in Ohio and Pennsylvania. 

The Columbiana County health department tested her property’s private well and told her it was “fine,” but so far hasn’t given her specific figures when she asked for them, Conard told the Capital-Star.

She was among the residents affected by the derailment who traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to speak to lawmakers, at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

Conard will address neighbors both in Pennsylvania and Ohio at town halls on Thursday night, aimed at residents who may want to pursue legal action. 

She has been working with the East Palestine Justice group, a team of attorneys, medical experts and activists including Erin Brockovich, offering to assist residents affected by the derailment. 

She spoke with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star ahead of the town hall meetings. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Q: When did you decide you were going to get involved as a community advocate?

A: The train tracks run about a football field behind my house, and there’s a pond that separates my house from the tracks. [The train] was on fire when it went through behind my backyard. Thank God I had my curtains closed because that could have been very traumatic for my kids to see. But every time a train passes now, of course, there is anxiety. We’ve been robbed of our peace of mind. And we’re in this position now because Norfolk Southern puts profits over people and they’ve caused this environmental disaster.

I grew up in East Palestine, and my parents and grandparents are graduates of East Palestine High School, and I grew up playing in the creeks and riding my bike in the park. I grew up in a very conservative home, and you know, I haven’t always been a renegade. 

But I feel like I found my voice with this because these are my people, and even though I may not like everyone in my town, or maybe everyone doesn’t like me, they’re worth fighting for and they’re my family, they’re the people that grew me. 

IF YOU GO: Town halls: Pennsylvania: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Blackhawk High School 500 Blackhawk Rd, Beaver Falls, Pa. Ohio: 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Main Street Theater, 5 N. Main St. Columbiana, Ohio.

Q: How are your kids handling things? 

A: We have three boys living at home, a 3-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 10-year-old. I think it’s certainly been tough for them. I have been traveling a lot, to New York and Washington D.C., and I’ve been out in the community and on the phone taking calls from senators late at night.

Ultimately, we’re trying to create a sense of normalcy for them at home. But what do you say when your son asks  “Are we gonna die if we live here?” What do you say to your kids when they say “is it OK to drink the water at school?” or “Why can’t we go out on the playground?” 

Kids talk, and they’re certainly old enough to know what’s going on. I collected quite a few testimonies from people in the community and I’m reading through them at home and it’s heartbreaking. So they are seeing me read these and they’re coming in  asking “Mom, why are you crying?”

Q: There are several pieces of legislation that have been proposed, in both houses of Congress focused on holding the railroad companies accountable and on tighter restrictions around trains carrying hazardous materials. What are you hoping lawmakers will be able to do for the people affected by this derailment? 

A: At this point, right now, what we desperately need – and what I would like to see our government doing – is making it easier for us to obtain medical monitoring and baseline dioxin testing for our bodies. There are some very clear conflicts of interest with Norfolk Southern funding testing lab labs. It makes it a very tangled web. 

What I would really like to see to be more specific, is a mobile unit. Come to our town, drive up and down these streets where people are homebound or have disabled children that are within that radius — wherever there’s a smell, they should follow the smell — and offer testing. I truly think the only way to make this better is to make sure that this never happens to anyone ever again. And I do feel like litigation pressure is one of the only avenues that we have to do that.

Q: What’s been the reaction from people when you suggest that “Hey, look, litigation might be the best avenue for us.” Have people been skeptical of that or do you think they’re receptive to that idea?

A: So it kind of goes back to that trust factor. We are a community that believes in a firm handshake; If you say you’re going to do something, we’re gonna believe that. So I think Norfolk Southern is certainly playing into that, playing on our trust and kindness. You have a $50 billion company bragging about $24 million in donations to us. And that’s breadcrumbs to them.

It is tough when you approach someone who maybe doesn’t understand the magnitude of the situation. With Norfolk Southern coming in and you know, donating to the schools and donating to the fire department. I think that is really getting into our hearts. We don’t know litigation, and not because we’re ignorant, just because we have that unique small town trust. 

It’s heartbreaking to see people thanking Norfolk Southern. And while I do think we should have manners, would you thank someone that poisoned your child even if it was not on purpose? Do you thank your abuser or the person that poisoned you, even if they give you money? I don’t know. You have to do what’s best for you, I guess. But for me, that would be a really tough call.

Q: What are you hoping comes from the town hall meetings you’re speaking at in Pennsylvania and Ohio? 

A: I think it’s really important for people to know that what I’m going to say is not scripted by a lawyer. It’s not scripted by Erin Brockovich — these are my words, and the words of people that I have interacted with in our community and read their testimonies. So you know, I hope that I can bring and maybe restore the trust in the community that there are good people working to get the answers, to get the transparency, and to restore the truth of the community, and that hopefully, we’ll bring unity back to our home and safety back to our home. 

Q: What kind of response or interactions have you had with people over the state line in Pennsylvania who have been affected by the derailment? 

A: I have several members of my extended family that live on the Pennsylvania-Ohio line. We are deeply rooted here. I lived in Pennsylvania for a short time as a child. And I think that from what I’m capturing is happening in Beaver County right now, is that Norfolk Southern is doing the same thing that they have been doing in East Palestine which is, you know, giving back to the schools. Giving back to the fire department, you know, really playing on the trust of these small communities. 

I think that we really need to share the message that we are in this position, because Norfolk Southern poisoned our land, our water, our air and our bodies. And they’re putting this show on, saying that it’s OK to get back to normal, because everything’s fine.

Maybe we’re not all in the same boat, but we’re all in the same ocean right now. And I think people’s worlds have really been rocked because of this in one way or the other. Whether you’re displaced from your home, whether your child or yourself are sick, whether you feel like you can’t walk your dog in the park—these freedoms have all been stolen from us.

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Kim Lyons
Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is a veteran western Pennsylvania journalist who has covered people and trends in politics and business for local and national publications. Follow her on Threads @social_kimly