The Lesson of East Palestine: We Small Town Americans Don't Matter | Opinion

The town I grew up in is just 20 miles away from East Palestine. As you've seen by now, a train carrying thousands of gallons of extremely hazardous, war-grade chemicals derailed there, igniting a horrifying black plume. The images have kept me up at night often these last couple of weeks. I have friends and family right there. My grandparents live there. My best friend is about to have her second baby there.

A community of amazing people that I love and admire is suffering greatly. And while the media is finally paying attention, preventable tragedies like this will keep happening. Why?

Because our government is broken. Because of corruption in our politics, our politicians think they can ignore the voices of everyday Americans. And for what? So a rail company can save some money by not getting their tracks repaired? So they can keep their pocketbooks lined with special interest donations?

We can't forget about my neighbors in East Palestine. What's happening to them is unacceptable, and we need to do something about it. Because while it might be my community today, yours could be next.

The areas of Ohio most affected by this disaster are not wealthy areas. Even though there have been reports of animals dying and people suffering adverse health effects, many are forced to stay there because they don't have another option. Even those who are fighting to keep their families as far away as possible are faced with devalued property and nothing worth selling even if they wanted to. Who's going to want to buy their chemical-covered homes?

The White House's silence on this has been deafening. Two weeks since the train derailed, there still hasn't been an official statement. Even more absurd, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine says his requests for federal disaster aid have been denied. Apparently, taxpayers in dire need of assistance are not eligible?

Not long ago, the previous administration caved to pressure from rail companies and loosened regulations on railroads. This allowed companies like Norfolk Southern to operate understaffed with old and faulty trains and deteriorating railroad tracks. Efforts to improve regulations and working conditions were defeated by money and lobbyists. And that's almost certainly part of the reason for this tragedy.

There's footage of this Norfolk Southern train passing through my hometown, on fire, 20 miles before it derailed. How did that possibly go undetected? Why do we not require stronger safety measures for a train that's carrying such massive amounts of deadly chemicals?

A train derailed near East Palestine Ohio
Smoke rising from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. The Ohio congressional delegation has written to FEMA asking them to explain reports they are unable to provide the requested support. DUSTIN FRANZ/AFP/GETTY

These might seem like no-brainer ideas to you and me. But unfortunately, politicians respond to money. And the rail companies have a lot of it.

People from small towns tend to have a general distrust of the government—can we really blame them? The Environmental Protection Agency claimed to have chosen the "least bad option" when they ignited chemicals into the air and drained them into the waterways that we all depend on for, you know, life.

But are we really expected to believe officials telling us our air and water is safe when thousands of animals are dropping dead and people are experiencing negative symptoms related to chemical fallout? What about all the other hazmat spills and fires happening suddenly around the country? What is going on?

I can't help but wonder if the relative radio silence from Washington is because they don't think small town Ohioans are their voter base. I have to imagine that if this had happened in Los Angeles or New York City, the response would have been much different.

I also know all the fun that is poked at Midwesterners and small town country folk. I used to find it funny, but when things like this happen, it's anything but. The truth is that these people aren't stupid or backward or ignorant. They love this country, they love their families and communities, they love their freedom.

At the end of the day, it's not about Right versus Left, or rural versus urban. It's about who has power in our government, and who our elected officials listen to.

As if it weren't obvious already, what's happening in East Palestine is a glaring reminder that politicians think they can ignore voters when they don't think those voters have power. When we live in a country where wealthy companies can buy political campaigns and buy politicians, it's we the voters that will always be screwed.

All we want is a simple, comfortable life. We deserve that. We deserve to be able to support our families and save money for a rainy day or our children's college funds on a full time income. We deserve safe air and water. We deserve our voices to be heard. We deserve justice. Here's hoping this is a wakeup call for changing the broken system.

Shea Williams grew up in Northeast Ohio and currently lives in Cleveland. A mom of six, she's a part-time accountant and works with a non-toxic skincare and wellness company. Williams partnered with RepresentUs, the nation's largest anti-corruption organization, to tell her story.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.