Unseen Risk and Structural Vulnerability in Fenceline Communities

Bethanny Prascik, Bryan K. Hill II, and McKenna Moore

Photo by Gene J. Puskar


Through the lens of fenceline communities affected by mobile toxic infrastructure, our research project examines the unseen risks of environmental catastrophes and the structural vulnerabilities that cause them. Therefore, our research is based on the following three-part question: How does the East Palestine disaster prompt us to view small, rural communities along the transportation line of industrial chemical products as fenceline communities? How does corporate influence impact at-risk communities’ vulnerability to toxic exposure? What are the unseen risks and harms of chemical exposure in fenceline communities? 


Our primary source material was gathered from semi-structured interviews in person and via phone. Secondary data was gathered through a comprehensive search and analysis of various media sources, including news articles, blogs, social media platforms, video footage, and official reports, as well as a literature review of relevant academic material and past anthropological research. 

By completing field notes after each research process, we were able to analyze common themes among our interlocutors and other source material, including shared concerns regarding health problems, mistrust, community divisions, and increased awareness of vulnerability. Together, these analyses give us insight into how our research should be centered around and further illuminate community issues and concerns. 

What are Fenceline Communities? 

Fenceline communities are broadly defined as areas adjacent to industrial/chemical facilities that often become polluted by exposure to toxic byproducts through air, water, or land. Existing patterns of vulnerability that primarily affect lower-income, working-class, and minority ethnic groups are exacerbated within these communities. Constructed patterns of vulnerability also arise from the convergence of preexisting hazards, settlement patterns, preventive measures, and state policies and ideologies (Rajan 2023). The combination of regulatory policies, or more accurately lack thereof, the vent-and-burn that released and created further toxins, and the patterns of human settlement along railways that transport hazardous materials all played a role in the East Palestine disaster. 

The presence of similar social and cultural factors in communities like East Palestine coupled with the risk of exposure presented by the overwhelming instances of train derailments every year highlights why communities on the fenceline of the transportation industry should be viewed as equally vulnerable to environmental harm as communities directly adjacent to industrial and chemical facilities.

This proposed route from OxyVinyls' factories in Texas to their PVC plants in New Jersey is associated with both the East Palestine and Paulsboro disasters. 

Risk Statistics 

742 rail incidents (355 derailments) occurred in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia between January 1, 2020, to May 31, 2023

➢ In these three states alone, 14 million people live within a mile of the tracks

Approximately 3 million people live within a mile of the route to the left

➢ An estimated 5.6 billion pounds of vinyl chloride is transported by rail or boat yearly

 ➢ OxyVinyls, the nation's top producer of vinyl chloride, transports 1.5 billion pounds by 8,595 rail cars every year

➢ Since 1968, there have been 29 derailments of vinyl chloride-carrying tank cars

➢ 12 of these derailments resulted in the release of vinyl chloride and other toxins

Another report by Material Research L3C detailing the extreme risk vinyl chloride poses to both people and the environment was submitted by Beyond Plastics, Earthjustice, and Toxic-Free Future to the EPA on March 18th, 2024. The purpose of this report was to urge the EPA to designate vinyl chloride as a substance that, “may present an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment” under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). This designation would allow the EPA to eliminate the risks associated with the manufacturing, processing, distribution, and disposal of vinyl chloride, a process that could lead to the substance being banned completely. 

To learn more about the EPA's efforts, click here ☞

"Trains ran through this town all the time and we didn’t think a thing about it. I’ve lived here 50 years and the thought never crossed my mind. It gives you a new sense of awareness. I know that the railroad is important to our way of life. I don’t think that we can instantly change that, but we need to instantly be working on what we can do to prevent future disasters and protect other communities that are along the tracks.” -- East Palestine resident Christa Graves 

The blue outline shows the approximately 1-by-2-mile radius of evacuation after the derailment. This area is also where Norfolk Southern focused the bulk of their cleaning efforts. 

Photo courtesy of Christa Graves  

Life on the Fenceline

East Palestine residents Christa Graves and Marina Davis are connected through the shared experience of living in a community brutally affected by an environmental catastrophe. Ms. Davis lives with her many furry companions just 100 feet outside of the 1-by-2-mile evacuation zone. Although she experienced burning her lungs and throat for over a week after the derailment, which she attributes to stepping outside for a few moments the night of the accident, they are the only adverse health symptoms she has experienced thus far. However, she worries about long-term health issues. Ms. Graves also lives right outside of the evacuation area with her two children and grandson. The entire family has experienced symptoms since the incident, from an initial burning sensation to chronic migraines and impaired cognitive function, as well as intestinal issues and muscle cramps that become worse the more time they spend outside. Exactly six months after the derailment, Ms. Graves was diagnosed with a thyroid condition which she believes was caused by dioxin, a known endocrine disrupter. “I thought I was living in the house I would die in,” Ms. Graves remarked, “but this isn’t a place we can stay anymore.” 

Both women have lived in East Palestine for most of their lives. Ms. Davis grew up on a nearby fruit and vegetable farm before moving into town about 16 years ago, while Ms. Graves bought her current home when she was 21 and has lived there ever since. They both expressed that living beside train tracks was never a thought that crossed their minds before, but the derailment has made them staunchly aware of the danger of this proximity. Ms. Graves said that if she can move away in the future, she will never live beside train tracks again. “I’m not a paranoid person,” said Ms. Davis, “and I try to be upbeat, but we all think about it now.” 

While the risks associated with the transportation of toxic chemicals are articulated extensively through evidence, the most meaningful perspective comes from firsthand accounts of their devastating effects. For many East Palestine residents, the derailment was only the beginning of a continuous and ongoing battle for transparency and justice. Ms. Graves explained that the days directly following the disaster were filled with confusion and panic, and many people didn’t know whether to stay or go. Ultimately, Ms. Davis chose to stay while Ms. Graves chose to take her family and go. When she returned to inquire at the assistance center about continued temporary relocation, she was told that since she lived exactly 1.2 miles away from the initial point of derailment, Norfolk Southern would not cover the cost. Residents like Ms. Graves, who were forced to stay, have mixed opinions about continuing to ask for help. “Some people don’t want to ask their abuser for help,” she stated. “They don’t want to beg (Norfolk Southern) for the bare minimum that they deserve.” She compares the company’s tactics of gaslighting and manipulation to psychological warfare. Residents are told time and time again that everything is fine, yet independent citizen science projects, personal testimonies, and continued health issues indicate otherwise. 

Resident experiences underscore an increased awareness of vulnerability to environmental harm and the problematic nature of the ‘fenceline’ distinction creating boundaries between whose vulnerability is recognized and whose is not. Ms. Davis and Ms. Graves now have drastically different views on vulnerability, and it will affect how they view their community for the rest of their lives. 

One of the main streets in East Palestine with a beautiful mural dedicated to the town. 

Photo: Virginia Affemann

Another glimpse of East Palestine shows the railroad tracks running directly through the heart of town. 

Photo: Virginia Affemann

Corporate Power and Vulnerability

Corporate Power

Understanding the intricate interplay between corporate influence, regulatory frameworks, and infrastructure development is essential in comprehending the heightened risk and vulnerability to toxic exposure in communities such as East Palestine. The dynamic relationships among corporate entities, governmental regulations, and community infrastructure unravels the mechanisms through which corporate influence molds the regulatory landscape which impacts the perceived risk and vulnerabilities of fenceline communities. By examining the relationship between corporate interests and regulatory decisions we can acknowledge the pathways through which vulnerabilities to toxic exposure are exacerbated, shedding light on the implications for public health and environmental justice in communities like East Palestine.

Corporate regulations wield a far-reaching influence on communities, profoundly shaping their vulnerability to toxic exposure. When regulatory frameworks prioritize corporate interests over public health and environmental protection, communities bear the brunt of increased risks. In places like East Palestine, where corporate entities often hold significant sway over regulatory processes, the resulting lax regulations or insufficient enforcement can lead to environmental degradation and heightened exposure to toxic substances. Moreover, disparities in power and resources exacerbate the vulnerability of marginalized communities, as they often lack the means to advocate for stricter regulations or mitigate the adverse effects of corporate activities. Consequently, corporate regulations play a pivotal role in perpetuating environmental injustices and widening the gap in vulnerability between communities, underscoring the urgent need for equitable and stringent regulatory measures.

East Palestine

In the context of East Palestine, the influence of corporations like Norfolk Southern is particularly pronounced, significantly impacting the regulatory landscape and exacerbating vulnerabilities to toxic exposure. Norfolk Southern, a major railroad company operating in the region, has a substantial footprint that intersects with the community's infrastructure and environmental surroundings. The company's operations, including the transportation of hazardous materials through rail lines and the management of industrial facilities, can pose significant risks to public health and the environment if not adequately regulated. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg mentioned this in a speech on the Department of Transportation's railway safety bill commenting that some railroad corporations have begun to run trains as long as three miles with only one worker (Buttigieg, 2024). Understanding the specific ways in which Norfolk Southern's and other railroad corporations’ activities shape the regulatory environment and contribute to the risk of toxic exposure is crucial for addressing environmental justice concerns and safeguarding the well-being of East Palestine residents. Mayoral candidate and East Palestine resident Misti Allison highlighted Norfolk Southern’s corporate power, explaining that the corporation’s lobbying efforts have affected recovery efforts following the 2023 train derailment (2024). She stated that Norfolk Southern had the power to choose which contractors were to clean up the disaster and put together the creek cleanup plan, instead of letting the EPA run point on the clean up (Allison, 2024). The East Palestine disaster exemplifies the impact of corporate power on the vulnerability of fenceline communities, and has the potential to exacerbate the vulnerability within these communities when the proper precautions are not taken into account.

US Department of Transportation

The Department of Transportation has been working tirelessly to advocate for stricter railway safety laws to prevent other disasters such as the one in East Palestine. Pete Buttigieg has been at the forefront of this bill, addressing rail safety issues and drawing attention to the significant human toll of railway accidents, with seven rail-related employee on-duty deaths and 46 major injuries reported across all railroads in 2023 alone (Buttigieg, 2024). He has highlighted the concerning trend of frequent train derailments in the United States, averaging more than one per day over the past five decades, attributing this pattern, in part, to the railroad industry's lobbying efforts to weaken or delay safety regulations following high-profile incidents. Buttigieg stated, “When good safety rules have been put in place over the years, especially after high profile incidents, we see derailments come down on main line tracks, but as attention faded on those incidents, the railroad industry lobby was consistently able to weaken or delay important safety provisions. Sometimes through legislation in Congress, sometimes by watering down regulations, sometimes getting a regulatory process frozen entirely” (2024). Buttigieg advocates for enhanced worker protections and calls for the implementation of regulations mandating safe crew sizes on trains, with a minimum requirement of two workers per train to ensure adequate safety measures are in place. These proposed measures aim to address the systemic issues contributing to railway accidents and mitigate the risks posed to both railroad workers and surrounding communities. The Department of Transportation’s rail safety bill is one step in the right direction in protecting the people in fenceline communities and preventing another East Palestine disaster from happening again.

This legislation would phase in safer tank cars, require defect detectors, expand the list of hazardous materials that qualify for stricter safety precautions, it would also increase the size of the fines that we can level against railroads so that they stop having any temptation to consider safety violations as a minor and manageable cost of doing business."

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg  

Buttigieg at the press release for Department of  Transportation Department's Federal Railroad Administration 

For a summary of the proposed bill, click here ☞

Unseen Harm

The term "invisible harm" describes the effects of chemical disasters that are not easily seen, measured, or recognized but impact human and non-human life, health, and ecosystems (Goldstein, 2017). The concept of "invisible harm" is enigmatic and challenging for environmental justice and health services because it is often difficult to predict or "see." Residents of East Palestine have been undergoing symptoms arising soon after the train derailment, such as headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, skin irritation, and much more. Some residents who experienced symptoms were told that other lifestyle factors could have led to the rise of these conditions. This makes some residents like Misti Allison nervous to mention to a doctor that she lives in East Palestine or that her symptoms could be a possible result of chemical exposure. This deflection has led to feelings of distrust, abandonment, and frustration among some of the residents. Eric Cozza, like many people in East Palestine, started facing more health issues after the Norfolk Southern train derailment. Eric has encountered complications with his health, such as a nodule on his lung and thyroid and a fatty liver condition, which he believes is a consequence of chemical exposure. He mentioned that the doctors told him that it could be caused by excess alcohol consumption or genetics, but he does not drink nearly enough for it to cause his liver problems. Eric gets frustrated that doctors allege that his experienced complications are from other factors, excluding the possibility of chemical exposure causing his symptoms. Unfortunately, Eric was not the only person he knew who suffered from the chemical spill and plume. His 18-year-old niece was hospitalized for a week because she started to have seizures. Another niece of Eric, 14 years of age, experienced burning and irritation in her scalp. As a foster parent, Eric also witnesses some of his foster children having headaches or nosebleeds. 

Because of the symptoms arising from the chemical spill, residents are wondering about the long-term effects of exposure to toxic chemicals. The long-term effect of chemical exposure, especially exposure to multiple chemicals, is difficult to predict. Residents of East Palestine like Eric Cozza and Misti Allison reflect on the possibility of harmful symptoms arising in the future. Eric has begun investigating the potential impact of chemicals and believes "these chemicals affect your children, your grandchildren, it causes infertility, and this is from one chemical." The possibility of returning symptoms in the future reminds Misti Allison of the 9/11 disaster cleanup workers who faced health complications and cancer years later, so she wonders if a similar problem will occur in East Palestine. Symptoms initially not experienced eventually taking effect in the future are a possibility of long-term chemical exposure. This example reflects the concept called "latency time," in which symptoms from chemicals are dormant in the body and do not show any health complications until months or years later. In other words, not only is chemical exposure a threat to current residents, but also to future generations. As one example, vinyl chloride, prevalent in the chemical spill, is an endocrine-disrupting chemical. In this case, "latency is intensified, as endocrine-mimicking chemicals have a particularly intense effect on shaping developing fetal life—life not yet born, and hence future life" (Murphy 2013, 1).  

Latent symptoms do not only cause a threat to humans but to animals as well. Animals were highly impacted by the train derailment, especially fish, as according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, "the chemical spill resulting from the derailment had killed an estimated 3,500 small fish across 7½ miles of streams" (NBC News, 2023). Like humans, animals can hold onto chemicals in their bodies for years, passing them on to the next generation because "toxics have multispecies epigenetic consequences" (Nading 2019, 17). Another concern is the possible harm from human consumption of chemically contaminated animals after long-term bioaccumulation. This unsettles Eric, a resourceful hunter and fisherman who believes in using all parts of the animal. He has a growing concern about the possible repercussions of eating deer liver exposed to the same chemicals as him since there is a possibility that the chemical past of animals may come back "into the food chain, into fish, and then possibly to humans" (Murphy 2013, 1). 


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