Horses, hogs and hazardous chemicals: East Palestine livestock owners race to protect their animals after train derailment

Sonia Early, owner of the Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio, inside her barn (Graig Graziosi)
Sonia Early, owner of the Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio, inside her barn (Graig Graziosi)

Sonia Early says she’ll work while she talks. It helps keep her hands from going numb.

It is below freezing, and while the barn at the Early Equine Centre just outside East Palestine, Ohio, provides ample shelter for its horses, there’s not much heat for its human occupants.

Ms Early, who boards horses and teaches riding and horse care at the centre, mucks the stall of a horse named "Doc Holliday" as she recalls the night a Norfolk Southern train jumped the rails and the subsequent terror she experienced when her son disappeared after the accident.

On 3 February, Ms Early was with her granddaughter and husband in Florida, where they were visiting a family member. Her 16-year-old son had stayed behind at the family’s home just beyond East Palestine’s border.

Friends from back home called Ms Early to report the news; there’s been an accident, and people are being evacuated.

Ms Early’s home is approximately two miles from the accident site — that puts it outside the mandatory one-mile evacuation zone, which is why she found it first odd, then troubling, when she called her son and received no answer.

She called again, and still no answer. Worry set in. The mind wanders to worst-case scenarios. She kept calling.

A couple of hours later, the tension broke — her son answered. He was safe, and told his mother he had accompanied his girlfriend to the high school to help settle the village evacuees.

"It was only a couple of hours, but for a mother, you know, it feels like a lifetime," she said.

One crisis down, another bigger one to go.

Two days later, the city announced it would vent and burn the train’s cargo — flammable vinyl chloride — to prevent it from exploding.

Ms Early had not yet returned from Florida when she learned of the plan. She would be spared the black mushroom cloud — the "controlled nuke of our town" as she describes it — that loomed over the city, but her horses wouldn’t. That was not acceptable.

"I did not want my horses out in any of that," she said.

Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio (Graig Graziosi)
Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio (Graig Graziosi)

She scrambled, calling anyone she knew in the area who might be able to help.

"I have a great network of horse friends with trailers who also work in this industry," she said.

Her friends came through; Ms Early’s 11 horses, two dogs, and a bird were evacuated, first to the Columbiana County Fairgrounds a few miles away, and later to Butler, Pennsylvania, after a state trooper told her friends that the burn’s area of effect would have a 16-mile radius.

Across the street at Reidy’s Hog & Beef Farm, Tammy Reidy and her husband, Dave, were doing their best to protect their own animals from the fallout.

Apart from the titular hogs and beef, the Reidy’s also sell animal products made from ducks and chickens — including eggs — and raise turkeys, goats and donkeys. Ms Reidy said the couple’s business is largely word of mouth, and they tend to sell what they harvest right back to East Palestine.

On the night of the burn, the couple ushered as many of their animals as possible into their barn. They knew it wasn’t airtight, but it was the best they could do on short notice.

"We thought for sure we’d end up losing the animals [on the night of the burn]," Ms Reidy said. "So far we’ve been ok, we’ve been trying to watch them and we check on them daily to see how they’re doing. We have calves being born, baby goats are due any day now, and it’s just been a big concern."

Since then, the couple has been monitoring the animals’ health. So far, so good. What they — and Ms Early — are worried about more is the water.

If the groundwater — the water they use to raise their animals — is contaminated, it could undermine their ability to work at the property.

"I mean of course if we lost the animals it would be a terrible loss, but they could be replaced eventually," Ms Reidy said. "But still it’s a question of — does [the groundwater] contaminate the animals? Does it contaminate their meat?"

Back across the street, a bone-chilling wind sends serpentine wisps of snow slithering across the pavement. Ms Early’s horses are adorned in multicoloured blankets, grazing on the ranch’s sacrificial pasture. They don’t seem to mind the cold.

Two days after the vent and burn, Ms Early returned her horses safely to the barn. But what had changed?

Ms Early walks to the back of her property and points to a shallow ditch behind her barn. The train tracks that pass through the centre of East Palestine run directly behind her property.

Sonia Early, owner of the Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio, examines the Norfolk Southern tracks behind her property (Graig Graziosi)
Sonia Early, owner of the Early Equine Centre near East Palestine, Ohio, examines the Norfolk Southern tracks behind her property (Graig Graziosi)

"It’s frustrating — even infuriating — to me, that it was no sooner than we had gotten the horses back home that the trains started running through here again," she said. "They used to fly through here."

Her husband, Steve, lost three days of work at a crane services provider he runs on the property adjacent to the equine centre, but it seemed like the railroads were already back to business.

Ms Early and her neighbours noted that the numerous Norfolk Southern trains that roll through the village have been traveling much slower since the accident.

That’s the obvious difference. But there were more subtle changes. She and her husband both began to experience symptoms, and the couple began hearing stories of eagles and hawks being found dead.

"I have had a runny nose since all this has happened. My husband’s had itchy eyes. Matter of fact, the day we came back in both of our eyes were burning. We thought maybe we were just tired, but it lasts.

In the coming weeks — maybe months, maybe longer — they will be monitoring. Monitoring the horses’ health, monitoring the water quality, monitoring her and her family’s well-being, and monitoring how the outside world views the village of East Palestine.

"Here’s our huge concern," she said, "we had a company that was willing to lease out [the Early’s adjacent property]. Will anyone even want to come in and run a business now? They’re not going to want to buy homes, they’re not going to want to bring their business in to town. I have a five-year-old grandbaby and I’m scared to death."