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Ohio derailment victims can learn from efforts to clean up a toxic mess in Michigan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, want answers after a train derailment and a toxic spill. Residents of Gratiot County, Mich., know their experience. Almost 50 years ago, a chemical company there mixed fire retardant into cattle feed. Animals and then people got sick. The same company dumped toxic waste into the Pine River for decades. Ed Lorenz is the vice chair of the Pine River Superfund Task Force and joins us next. Good morning.

ED LORENZ: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Is your community still living in the aftermath?

LORENZ: Oh, yes. There's an active cleanup of contaminants at the site of the old plant, a major cleanup that's eventually costing us about a half billion dollars. And there's all sorts of spots in the river and other locations that potentially are still contaminated.

INSKEEP: I'm interested, if you're a lifelong resident of that area, if this has been something that you've dealt with basically your whole life.

LORENZ: Well, I'm not exactly, but I've been here for more than 30 years. I, by chance, when I first moved here, was exposed to the problem. It already had been almost 20 years since the accident that started our problems.

INSKEEP: Wow. Did the government help?

LORENZ: Well, you know, I think what people in East Palestine are - will be finding out - you know, there are basically three parts of this. One is the polluter, another is, you know, the government, both environmental and public health agencies and then the citizens. And in a sense, the EPA, you know, for the environment and the health agencies work for us, and they do. But the people often have a different perspective than even those agencies and then certainly the polluter.

INSKEEP: Meaning that residents on the ground may simply see the world differently than either the polluter or the federal authorities who are supposed to look after you.

LORENZ: Right. The - I mean, the government's somewhat sympathizing with their position. I mean, they're - you know, government is controlled in our system by laws and processes that have been put in place, in a general way, to deal with the general problem of, say, serious, you know, pollution of the ground in a community. But, you know, each situation is different, and people bring to exposures their own unique previous experience that can complicate a new exposure to a contaminant.

INSKEEP: I feel that you're telling me that people in East Palestine should not, cannot look for immediate closure. This could take a long time, based on your experience. So given that, what advice would you give to people in East Palestine and the surrounding area?

LORENZ: I think one thing that happened to us - and I think this could be a model for them, and I know our organization would be glad to talk to them. We're a bunch of citizen volunteers - is to organize independently. Now, there's a little gray area because this is so recent. Some of the cleanups are being handled under something called Superfund, and under the Superfund to clean up contaminated sites, there's a procedure for communities to establish advisory groups and even to get independent funding through EPA to hire their own experts to do second-guessing. And that has helped us greatly.

INSKEEP: Do your own research but in a real way. Mr. Lorenz, thanks so much.

LORENZ: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Ed Lorenz of the Pine River Superfund Task Force, he has written about his experience in a book called "Civic Empowerment In An Age Of Corporate Greed."

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "ART IN THE AGE OF AUTOMATON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.