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The mayor of East Palestine, Ohio, looks back on train derailment one year later

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Tomorrow marks one year since a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. It was carrying tons of hazardous materials, sparking a massive fire and raising a number of health and environmental concerns.

I spent some time this week in East Palestine to get a sense of how it has changed over the past year. While I was there, I sat down with the town's mayor, Trent Conaway. He spent the past year trying to get the town back on its feet, and a big part of that is dealing with the major divisions that have developed in the community in the year since the derailment - about how dangerous things still are, about how Norfolk Southern responded and about how the town should move forward. I asked Conaway what he makes of the divide.

TRENT CONAWAY: You know, people just don't know what to think, you know? We still have doubts and thoughts in our head, too - like, what's going to happen in 15 years? Is there going to be a cancer cluster here? - and stuff like that. But I guess we won't truly know till it happens. That's why I wrote the letter to the president to come here, see for yourself. Do I support the president? No. Would I vote for the man again? No. But you need to come. You need to see what's going on here and, you know, see for yourself that, you know, you do have residents that are concerned about their future. And the leader of the free world should step up and say, hey, we're going to help take care of you.

DETROW: You've expressed frustration in the past that it's taken so long for the president to visit.

CONAWAY: Yes, absolutely. And everybody said, well, I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth because, this morning, we announced that, you know, we're coming to visit, and then this afternoon, they say, well, you invited him. Well, yeah, I invited him, but, you know, I think that's what his job is. But this is a nonpartisan town. So when I run, there's no D or R beside my name. It's just my name.

DETROW: Had you explicitly invited him before? - because that seemed to be a point of contention in the news over the last day or so.

CONAWAY: I mean, I never officially invited him. I said he's more than welcome to come. I've always said, from Day 1, I don't know what he's actually going to do here. Now, I think, if anything, it would be just to prove to people that, hey, all your agencies are saying this is safe. Come here and, you know, put your money where your mouth is, and prove that it is safe to be here, so.

DETROW: We see the EPA down the street. There has been a big federal response to this. Are you happy with the federal response?

CONAWAY: You know, it was slow there at the beginning, I will say, but, you know, they stepped it up. I can't say enough about Michael Regan, the head of the EPA. Always, if I need to call and ask something, it's either him or Debra Shore. I can get on the phone and ask them, and, you know, they get right back to me. Pete Buttigieg is - every time I've needed something and I called, even if it was 7:30 on a Friday night, he calls and answered. You know, I could hear kids in the background and playing. And so, I mean, you know, he stepped up, and I appreciate things like that.

DETROW: Yeah. A year later, are things better or worse than you thought they'd be in the immediate aftermath of that crash?

CONAWAY: They're significantly better than I thought it would be. Tell you what - February 6, 7 of last year, I did not know if we'd even have a town this year, you know? I mean, it was pretty dark, especially when, you know, we chose to do the vent and burn, but I'd still do the same, so - that was the safest thing to ensure the safety of our village residents.

DETROW: And going back to that divide that we talked about, how do you, as a leader in this village, deal with that? How do you get the 10 and the 10 (ph) to stop walking past each other and be in the same community again?

CONAWAY: You just give them as many details and facts and figures as you can. And at some point, there's not much you can do but just hope that they see what - I don't want to say see what you're trying to put forward because you never want to, you know, indoctrinate anybody, you know, and try to put thoughts in somebody's head. You just - you want them to make their own decisions.

DETROW: Yeah.

CONAWAY: I was scared. I mean, I was just like anybody else. I mean, I'm a husband and a father helping make a decision of, you know, what we're going to do in this town, and it was rough. It was - you know, I had thoughts, too. Like, is this really what - you know, is this the right thing? Is this - it was new ground for all of us, so it's been a very interesting year. So....

DETROW: Yeah. Mayor Conaway, thanks for talking to us.

CONAWAY: All right. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Tinbete Ermyas
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