Real estate experts in the small Ohio town of East Palestine has revealed that the housing market has now ground to a halt as the fallout from the February toxic train crash continues.
Prior to February 3, East Palestine was a small, unassuming village in the northeast corner of Columbiana County.
The middle-class suburban community sits close to the Pennsylvania border.
It is considered safe and affordable, with a median home sales price of $140,000.
But all that changed early last month.
The village became a national spotlight following the February 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern Railway freight train carrying hazardous chemicals.
Since then, there have been televised and published reports of animals and fish dying, people becoming ill, plus the constant fear of contaminated groundwater.
In the most recent developments, the State of Ohio has filed a civil lawsuit against Norfolk Southern over the disaster.
Attorney General Dave Yost outlined the 58-count complaint.
Yost said that Norfolk Southern violated state, federal, and Ohio common laws as well as the state’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.
Now, local homeowners, potential homebuyers, and real estate agents are playing a waiting game when it comes to the future of listings, showings, and home sales.
Kelly Warren, broker/owner of Kelly Warren & Associates Real Estate Solutions in Youngstown, Ohio, told The Epoch Times that things seem to be in limbo at the moment.
“We’re not seeing a mass exodus of people who live there, but we’re also not seeing a lot of people who want to move into the area,” she said.
“There has been some chatter about people thinking of moving or selling though.”
Of the few homes that have gone on the market, Warren admitted the activity has been a little slower than normal.
“People are being cautious, and I think most still feel like they’re being left in the dark, even though there have been regular town hall meetings about this,” she said.
Compared to the current national median home sales price of $359,000, according to National Association of Realtors data, Warren noted East Palestine’s home costs are substantially lower, as are the property taxes and general cost of living there.
Typically, the area has attracted people who move back home to be closer to aging parents or others returning home to retire.
“During the pandemic, we also saw a lot of younger people moving back to the area to work remotely, especially since we’re not that far from the Pittsburgh airport,” she added.
Given the current economy and elevated interest rates, Warren indicated it may not be the best time to get the maximum dollar amount for East Palestine properties.
“It could also be difficult for potential home sellers in the near future because we just don’t know the extent of any contamination,” she said.
“A lot of people are having their wells tested and many are buying bottled drinking water because they just don’t feel safe.”
Located about 20 minutes away from East Palestine in Youngstown, Warren is also concerned.
“I’m not worried to the point of wanting to move, but we’re just living and dealing with it now,” she said.
“We’re also drinking bottled water, but then again, we’ve always done that.”
Ron Black, an agent with Keller Williams in Salem, is already working with at least one family who is trying to move out of East Palestine.
Black told The Epoch Times that just two of their East Palestine listings came on since the train accident, and also two have gone under contract there.
There are about 17 active listings to date.
“People are concerned, and the county health department has been doing inspections on wells to determine the safety of water,” he said.
In some cases, home sales closed before the data from the well inspection was available.
“In those cases, the seller would have to take care of any problems.”
Like Warren, Black said everyone seems to be taking a “wait and see” attitude.
“Everyone is in kind of holding pattern right now.
“It’s too early to tell what the outcome will be, but people are worried about the possibility of their property values plummeting.”
Michael Stevens of Coldwell Banker in Warren, Ohio, is also the president of the Youngstown Columbiana Association of Realtors (YCAR). Stevens has been in the real estate business for over 30 years and believes this train derailment will have a significant impact on East Palestine and the local surrounding communities.
“No one knows the long-term effect of this and how long any ground and water contamination is going to be a risk,” he told The Epoch Times.
Following the derailment, Stevens said a contingent of YCAR volunteers visited East Palestine to help unload supplies of water and other necessities for the local residents.
The National Association of Realtors’ (NAR) Realtor Relief Foundation often provides funding to local realtor associations for distribution to families in need in disaster areas.
However, a disaster declaration can be made only by the federal government, the governor of the affected state, or the chief local elected official in the county, city town, or village.
Ohio governor Mike DeWine’s administration has been constantly lobbying for support from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) since the accident.
“FEMA continues to tell Governor DeWine that Ohio is not eligible for assistance at this time,” Dan Tierney, DeWine’s press secretary told The Epoch Times.
“As an interim measure, Governor DeWine has directed the Ohio Emergency Management Agency to apply for a FEMA disaster declaration in case the situation changes.”
Tierney explained that the main issue regarding eligibility for a FEMA disaster declaration is that the East Palestine derailment did not directly result in property damage the same way as other disasters such as tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.
In addition, the property damage cannot have third-party coverage to be eligible for a FEMA disaster declaration.
“In the case of East Palestine, Norfolk Southern has been paying for expenses as a third-party payer,” he added.
Stevens believes East Palestine and the surrounding areas may also face an uphill battle in the coming months in terms of real estate transactions.
“The number of transactions across the state of Ohio has been way down, but the good news is that the values are not dropping,” he said.
“We’re still dealing with supply and demand issues, and I think as mortgage rates stabilize, we’ll start to see more movement.”
As for the local communities affected by the chemical spill, Stevens said there’s still no clear picture of what the future will bring.
Meantime, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website indicates that the EPA and Norfolk Southern contractors are continuing to collect soil samples at agricultural, residential, commercial, and recreational properties in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.
To date, they have collected 52 samples and inspected 25 sites.
Contractors are also conducting air monitoring in the affected areas.
According to the EPA website, they have sampled 615 homes to date and claim that there have been no detections of vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride.
The Columbiana County Health District’s website notes that the county is still providing assistance with well testing and has a toxicologist available to answer any questions.
The district has also set up a Health Assessment Clinic at the First Church of Christ in East Palestine.
Despite the perceived progress, Governor DeWine is growing concerned about the slow removal of contaminated soil from the East Palestine accident site.
The Ohio Emergency Management Agency website reports that 27,470 tons of excavated soil remain to be removed.
To date, only 3,200 tons have been removed, and close to 6.3 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been hauled away.
“The needs of this community are essentially getting lost in all this red tape, and piles of hazardous soil must not continue to sit stagnant in East Palestine,” said Governor DeWine.
“While I understand the steps the EPA is taking to ensure that the waste is disposed of in a safe and proper matter, the fact that waste removal has stalled is outrageous.”
READ MORE: East Palestine Residents Give Grim Update after Toxic Train Wreck: ‘We’re Dying Slowly’