"The Creek Is Not Ok": Regulatory Capture, Knowledge Gaps, and Citizen Science in East Palestine

Audrey Caiola, Corissa Nazarewycz, Madison Baskin, and Matt Valenti


On February 3, 2023 at approximately 8:55 pm there was a train derailment in East (EP) Palestine Ohio. A Norfolk Southern train carrying toxic substances including vinyl chloride derailed and extruded the substance across the area. In order to stop the continued devastation to the local environment the corporation decided to do a "controlled burn." This in turn would pollute the air and water and further spread the chemicals. Born from this disaster is the question, “What are the public debates surrounding the environmental health, personal health, and testing surrounding this disaster and how has it sparked a wave of citizen science in East Palestine?” We explore some of the reasons residents resort to citizen science. These include responses to the effects of slow violence, stationary displacement, and the uncertainties they create. Another aspect that causes distrust in official testing done by regulatory agencies is "regulatory capture" and the willful ignorance that occurs because of regulatory agencies prioritizing their relationship with the industries they regulate over public safety. Gaps in knowledge and poor risk communication, which can lead to lack of accountability and distrust, are some other important issues that can lead to the use of citizen science. Through providing examples of these deficiencies relating to the chemical train derailment in East Palestine, a better understanding can be drawn as to how and why these issues occur and how they are redirected to more progressive actions.


For our research we gathered scholarly publications that are relative to our research question and thesis in terms of citizen science, undone science, knowledge gaps, and regulatory deficiencies. We then combed over these readings and pulled information that helped us to analyze and explain terms and theories that are relevant to our topic and to use in our research paper. These were converted into a Literature Review that we utilized to connect ideas and themes over the large scheme of topics and keywords. 

We also sifted through secondary sources such as news articles, media sources, videos, and reports that help to give agency and context to the specific area and people of the event we are examining. We gathered news articles and videos that discuss citizen science and clean up efforts that have happened within East Palestine following the chemical train derailment and burning process. We also watched videos of interviews, Tik Toks, or news that pertain to the situation we are investigating to gather visual evidence and information to help with our research. One online and three live interviews with citizens of East Palestine gave context to the current state of the town and its relationship with Norfolk and the EPA as well as the broader public. This helped us to grasp how citizens feel about the events through an emic perspective on topics such as clean up efforts, ongoing side effects, and potential justice concerns. 

Our primary sources stem from both interviews and participant observation in East Palestine, Ohio. These were collected during two trips to the town on Tuesday March 12, 2024 and Wednesday April 3, 2024. The first trip on March 12 was primarily to conduct semi-structured interviews, both planned and unplanned. We asked: First, do you know anyone who has done environmental testing on their own/ what made them decide to do their own independent testing? Second, how do you feel about the testing being done by the government and Norfolk Southern/ Have you or anyone you know witnessed them doing testing? Third, what are your thoughts on the cleanup efforts, do you think it was enough, and what is the opinion in the community/ do you know what testing is being done? Fourth, has the government and/ or Norfolk Southern been transparent throughout the past year + of disaster cleanup efforts/ Have they kept you informed on the health effects or cleanup efforts? Finally, do you know anyone who has had health issues connected to the disaster/ how has this been dealt with by the government and/ or Norfolk Southern/ How has this been dealt with in the community?

We conducted three interviews, two unplanned and one planned, and conducted participant observation via a “creek walk” with one of the interviewees. The creek walk was done in order to find signs of pollution still in the area with a woman "Creek Ranger" who does citizen science. The second trip was simply to gather information via somatic senses as we walked through the town.

Another semi-structured interview was conducted over e-mail with a neuroscientist and TikTok poster aiming to build a tool that would analyze citizen science data. This interview provided insight into the technical issues with collecting results from citizen science endeavors due to the political landscape of East Palestine influenced by the fear and distrust residents experienced in the aftermath of the disaster.

"People don't realize that people can't leave"- "Kristen," East Palestine Resident

Regulatory Capture, Knowledge Gaps, & Risk Communication

Regulatory Capture refers to the phenomenon where regulatory agencies bow to the whims of the industries they were initially charged with regulating (Kenton 2021). In the case of the East Palestine train derailment, the deregulation leading up to the disaster and controversial testing and clean-up methodology has led people to view the EPA as a "captured agency" that has prioritized their relationship with Norfolk Southern over public health and safety. Successful lobbying is a form of regulatory capture, one that is still being exhibited post-derailment through Norfolk Southern's involvement in lobbying against the proposed Railway Safety Act.

Knowledge Gaps are, “the difference between individuals’ current knowledge and the amount of information they perceive is needed, in order to deal with a given situation” that originates from the need, whether conscious or unconscious, for knowledge (Shakeri, 2018). For residents of East Palestine, several gaps in the knowledge they have obtained from the EPA and Norfolk Southern have lead some to attempt to close that gap by creating their own research and testing methods. When these gaps are created either intentionally or unintentionally, a breach in trust is also created which can disrupt progression and cause hesitancy to trust that the entity in power has the best intentions to correct the situation. Regarding the testing and clean up process from the EPA and Norfolk Southern, there has been a large gap in the amount and type of information they have shared publicly to the residents of E.P. relating to the chemicals and their quantity identified in streams, soil, and air surrounding the derailment site.  An example of this is the independent air testing study that was conducted by local resident and East Palestine activist, Misti Allison. 

Risk Communication entails the process in which information is exchanged between experts or officials and those who are in direct relation with a hazard or threats. With any disasters that occur, risk communication plays a significant role in the process of remediation, however, when this is done improperly or with lack of care, negative effects can arise. This can be exemplified through a letter from the office of Inspector General, relating to the testing and clean up efforts in East Palestine that states, “Our Primary Observation is that the EPA could enhance its risk communication methods to clearly communicate to the public which chemicals are being sampled or monitored, why they are being sampled or monitored, and when or why sampling or monitoring stopped” and “we observed that the EPA did not clearly communicate why it sampled for or monitored certain chemicals. The EPA also did not communicate when and why it stopped sampling or monitoring, such as when concentrations fell below minimal risk levels.” Because the public is not aware of the details relating to the testing process, it leaves many to wonder what information they are refusing to admit. This in turn ushers people to look into the information on their own. 

What Is Citizen Science?

Citizen science is described as both a scientific and methodological approach by the public to engage in a scientific project.  Due to various factors that inhibit research to be carried out by experts, coupled with a public dissatisfaction with government policies, testing results and regulations, and lack of project funding, local citizens engage in projects to produce scientific research results that contribute to a deeper understanding of environmental conditions (Grace-McCaskey, 2019).  Inhibited research prompts local citizens, scientists, and experts to contribute their time and resources to a scientific project to which they choose to give attention (O’Rourke and Macey, 2003, Fischer, 2000). Individuals participate in citizen science due to the desire for improved environments and safer living conditions. The goal of citizen science is often to gather information that is not being collected or viewed by regulators and policy makers and to use citizen reported science as a way to gain clarity on the true state of the environment, as well as leverage in pursuit of policy action and safer environments (Fischer, 2000).

Why Citizen Science Occurs

Two pathways, out of many, that lead to citizen science are slow violence and stationary displacement. Slow violence is defined as, “Violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (Nixon 2011). Stationary displacement largely affects poor communities in which residents are either unable or unwilling to leave despite the dangers faced by prolonged exposure to contaminants (Davies 2019, 415-16). 

Slow violence allows corporate and government entities to point towards other causes. One person we interviewed in East Palestine (referred to as Carla) described some of those scapegoats. Carla claims they have been told that their immediate illnesses are caused by onions, vitamin B12, excessive drinking, excessive smoking, garlic, and even pumping gas. She followed this by simply asking, “Why weren’t we sick before?” Another interviewee (Kristen) also commented on this subject claiming that any illnesses were caused by smoking. For context some of the ailments claimed include tremors, headache, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and a metallic taste. The residents of East Palestine are aware of slow violence in their community although not by definition. Carla during the interview grew extremely emotional when talking about the future. She fears for the safety and livelihood of her son. She expressed concerns about whether or not she will be around to take care of him, what kind of complications he is going to develop due to prolonged exposure and how he will be able to afford future healthcare especially if she is no longer around. 

All of the interviewees are victims of stationary displacement. Kristen is unable to move due to her financial situation. However, there is an added element to her suffering. Kristen is a multigenerational resident of East Palestine and prior to the derailment and subsequent contamination enjoyed living near her children and grandchildren. Since the derailment Kristen’s life has been upended as her daughter’s family moved away to escape the contamination. She now sees her family every couple of weeks instead of daily. Barb’s stationary displacement is a little different. Barb (second interviewee) is of the opinion that everything is fine, and the town is no longer contaminated. Notably, Barb is a recent transplant to East Palestine and a business owner. She needs the town to be okay for both her livelihood and business. These two factors keep her from relocating despite the risk. Carla is in a comparable situation to Kristen. Carla is unable to leave and was even unable to evacuate during the disaster due to her financial situation. This also plays into her fears for her son as they are forced to sit and wait to see if they will get sick or not.     

These uncertainties helped Carla decide to be a “Creek Ranger”. Creek Rangers are a group of East Palestine  residents who decided that they did not trust the testing being done by the Environmental Protection Agency or Norfolk Southern. As a result, they decided to take matters into their own hands and perform citizen science in an attempt to hold them accountable. 

“We conducted our own community testing projects when we weren’t comfortable with 'no' being an answer” -Misti Allison

Photo Credits to Rebecca Kiger

Mom's Clean Air Force

One of the several examples that represents community mobilization and citizen science within East Palestine is the research that Misti Alisson helped design and conduct within the area. Misti expressed that the residents were unsatisfied with the results of air monitor testing done by the EPA and were informed that their request of indoor air monitoring would not be fulfilled by experts or the responsible parties stating: “We were told the indoor air monitoring wasn’t going to happen.”  When the EPA did not agree to further indoor air testing Misti said that the response from herself and others seeking further testing was: “We’ll find a way to do it ourselves.”  

Misti collaborated with Chainey Nesbeth who runs the Way Station, an organization dedicated to social services in East Palestine. Donors that contribute funds and goods to the Way Station provided funding for the indoor air monitoring as well as 70 indoor air monitors.  These monitors were distributed to various people and homes throughout East Palestine for the collection of test results.  The test results from the indoor air monitors were analyzed by independent researchers who offered to analyze the data within their lab.

"We're sacrificing our own health to search for contaminants." -Misti Allison

Citizen Science Efforts on Tik Tok

Devon Oship


"They have lied all along, why would this be any different?"- East Palestine Resident

Creek Rangers

Photo Credits to Rebecca Kiger

Creek Rangers and Our Creek Walk

The Creek Rangers of East Palestine are a group of residents who have taken it upon themselves to hold the EPA and Norfolk Southern accountable. These brave residents have suffered and will continue to do so to help safeguard their community. We were able to Interview a Creek Ranger and to accompany them as they walked through a creek looking for signs of contamination. 

We interviewed Carla (pseudonym) before we walked Sulphur Run. I quickly began to see how passionate she was about protecting her community, especially how much she cared for her son and family. It was clear that she had no intentions of personal gain and only wanted to do her part to help heal her community. At this point we felt both admiration and sadness. It was heartbreaking listening to her discuss the problems faced by the community and her family. We finished the interview, and it was finally time to head to Sulphur Run. 

We arrived at Sulpher Run at around 4:00 P.M.. The first twenty to thirty minutes were unsuccessful as Carla dipped her shovel repeatedly into the muddy creek and moved a rock or two along the banks. She mentioned that these spots usually showed signs of contamination when she came. We all observed that the water in the creek was high, which she explained was due to the release of water (presumably by the EPA or Norfolk Southern). Carla also explained that we were more likely to see signs of contaminants as the water level receded and the current along with it. After around thirty minutes the water had receded, and Carla kept seeing contaminants and attempted to point them out. We simply could not see what she was pointing out.  

Then all of a sudden, we saw it! Then again! And again! At this point we had cameras at the ready and were snapping a picture the second we saw a contaminant. (These pictures can be found in the PHOTO GALLERY). By now we were repeatedly observing contaminants come to the surface and disappear downstream. This went on for another thirty minutes. I was extremely impressed with her knowledge of the creek and where the contaminants gather. We also observed the contaminants secreted from some of the old bricks that were left in the stream. With plenty of pictures and evidence we decided to return to our vehicles. As we approached the exit, we noticed a large and thick pool of oil had formed in the depression left by a rock we moved earlier. We snapped a few pictures and exited the creek. When we later visited East Palestine, we found that the most contaminated spots had oil booms around or near them. 

We left the creek and said our goodbyes and it was time for us to reflect on the ride home. We were left with a feeling of being extremely impressed with Carla’s knowledge of the creek. It was obvious that she had experience about where to look and how to find contaminants. It was also clear that the creek is more contaminated than we had originally suspected. If we could see that much without ideal conditions or scientific equipment, then we could not imagine what it is "normally" like. As we left, some of us were experiencing headaches that we had not previously had and that lasted for several hours after our departure. Most importantly we left feeling motivated with a desire to help this community and have the Creek Rangers' voices heard.


Works Cited

Davies, Thom. 2019. “Slow Violence and Toxic Geographies: ‘Out of Sight’ to Whom?” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space 40 (2): 409–27. 

Fischer, Frank. 2000. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: The Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Grace-McCaskey, Cynthia A. 2019. “Eco-Ethnography and Citizen Science: Lessons from Within,” Society and Natural Resources 32(10): 1123-1138.

Kenton, Will. 2021. “Regulatory Capture Definition with Examples.” Investopedia. March 1. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/regulatory-capture.asp.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

O’Rourke, D., and G. P. Macey. 2003. “Community environmental policing: Asses-sing new strategies of public participation in environmental regulation,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 22 (3): 383-414.

Shakeri, Shadi, Nicholas Evangelopoulos, and Oksana Zavalina. 2018. “The Interplay between Knowledge Gap and Perceived Risk in Motivating Risk Information Seeking,” Information Research: An International Electronic Journal 23 (3).