GRANITEVILLE, S.C. — The residents of Graniteville, S.C. said they are keenly aware of the train derailment and vinyl chloride leak in East Palestine.
“When I hear a tale of another trainwreck, just something goes all the way through me, and I just feel sorry for the people because I know what they’re going through,” Adine Corley said.
In January 2005, a Norfolk Southern train derailed in Graniteville. One of the freight cars was punctured. It caused a chlorine leak that spread throughout the town. Nine people died. Damages were extensive. Negative health effects followed.
Corley lives blocks from ground zero of the disaster. She was later diagnosed with asthma and said she is only able to utilize 60% of her lungs.
Other residents also said they experience health problems.
Louisiana Wright Sanders, a community activist who helped open the Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology Study Center (GRACE) said her brother’s health suffered until his death years after the accident.
Her younger brother, Joe Walker, said his health has never fully recovered.
“I have a lot of problems with my lungs,” Walker said. “And I didn’t have that problem before.”
Charity Capers-Williams, a registered nurse and Director of Clinical Operations at Rural Health Services, said she treats many people, like Walker, as patients.
She said they live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, emphysema as well as anxiety and PTSD.
Capers-Williams said East Palestine residents should document any negative health effects they are experiencing.
“If I start having headaches, if I start having hair loss, unexplained skin issues, respiratory issues, make sure it’s documented, so that you can have that timeline of, it started at this point because I think that would help,” she said.
The incident is also blamed for the shutdown of the town’s main employer, Avondale Mills.
“You can still smell [the chlorine] at times. When the wind is blowing a certain way, you can still smell it,” former mill worker Josie Widener said. “I don’t think Graniteville will ever be the same again.”
Widener and her husband, Clyde, also live just a few blocks away from ground zero of the disaster. They spent a combined 25 years working at a mill and said a lifetime of work disappeared within months of the derailment.
She said they were never fully compensated for the trauma they experienced.
“Do not, under no circumstances, settle with the railroad because they will rip you off,” Josie said. “They told us, you will not pay taxes on this. That was in January of ’05. February of ’06, we get a 1099 and had to pay taxes on everything they gave us.”
Clyde echoed her sentiment.
“Just tell Ohio not to settle,” he said.
The former fire chief and current county councilman, Phil Napier, said the Wideners’ experience is shared by many in the community.
“The attorneys swooped in like vultures,” he said. “It’s just pitiful the way people were treated. The Norfolk Southern, they came in and took care of your lodging if you had to lodge somewhere else. They took care of your food, your expenses. And like, even my business, I was out like two or three weeks. They paid me. Like I said, I didn’t ask for much. They paid me what business I felt like I had lost. That’s all I asked for. Like I said, some people they treated fairer than they did others. And to be honest with you, if I had known then what I know now, I would have got money, because emotionally, it got me.”
Wright-Sanders said she wishes residents in East Palestine were told to get out immediately after the derailment. She said she would have advised them to evacuate until soil and water contamination testing was complete.
“Because we had children here who were running around and playing, and their hair started falling out," she said. “I don’t know. Was it a result of the chlorine spill or not? But their hair wasn’t falling out before.”
When informed that residents in East Palestine were told that everything was safe, Wright Sanders said, “trust, but verify.”
“If I was that community, I would be getting together and having it tested by an independent authority,” she said.
Following the chlorine leak, Norfolk Southern set up an assistance center in Graniteville.
An article in the local newspaper, Aiken Standard, reads as follows:
“After the center opened many area residents expressed concerns over a release statement on the back of the checks. All of the checks stated, ‘Endorsement of this check constitutes a full, final and complete release of all claims growing out of the accident of all claims growing out of an accident occurring at Graniteville, SC on 1-6-2005’. Both the words ‘Graniteville’ and the date were handwritten in the blanks. Norfolk Southern claimed the statement was not a release of all liability, but many area attorneys cautioned clients about signing the checks, which were intended to offer immediate aid.”
The article said the company later issued new checks without the release statement.
The chlorine leak in Graniteville is regarded as one of the worst toxic train disasters in U.S. history, but Napier said there was little national interest.
Much of the news coverage, he said, was fixed on an earthquake and tsunami that devastated coasts off the Indian Ocean just weeks prior. The death of Pope John Paul II and Hurricane Katrina followed that Spring and Summer.
Within two months, Napier said he didn’t believe the state or federal government were present in Graniteville and as far as Norfolk Southern, he said, “After a few months they were [here], until they got all the signatures they could get, and the only people who got much out of it were they attorneys…the federal government, the state government, nor the railroad has been back to see how this community is doing and how we’re surviving.”
Spectrum News 1 reached out to Norfolk Southern Railroad Corp. As of this article’s publication, the company has not responded to our questions.
According to newspaper reports, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay $2,000 to households within a one-mile radius from the derailments site. Further settlements would span the years that followed including a $10.5 million class action lawsuit.
According to the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA, Norfolk Southern agreed to pay a $4 million penalty to resolved alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.
Of that, $3,967,500 was deposited in the Federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. The remaining $32,500 was placed in the Hazardous Substance Superfund.
As for Graniteville, under the terms of the agreement, Norfolk Southern provided training to environmental and transportation personnel. It stocked a nearby pond with 3,000 fish to replace those killed by the chlorine spill and it posted the telephone number for the National Response Center to facilitate spill reporting.
The settlement also included a $100,000 project to plant vegetation along the banks for Horse Creek to decrease erosion and sedimentation.
Napier said much of that vegetation is now dead.
His advice for the people of East Palestine: hold out and fight for their community.
“Don’t give up,” he said.
In a statement to Spectrum News 1, Norfolk Southern did not comment on the situation in Graniteville, but did provide the following statement on East Palestine.
“We have been firm in our commitment to making it right in East Palestine and the surrounding communities in eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. Our employees and contractors remain embedded in the community to serve its residents, and we will remain in East Palestine for as long as it takes.”
Editor's Note: The story has been updated to include a statement from Norfolk Southern. (May 1, 2023)