Ohio teenager on derailment: ‘We want answers just like adults’

Jordan Anderson
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH — Not many 17-year-olds need to think about the long-term consequences of chemical exposure to their health.

But since February, Jenna Cozza has been wondering if she and other teenagers will develop cancer in a decade’s time or if they will have infertility problems when they want to have children of their own one day. The high schooler saw her hometown plunge into chaos after a 38-car train derailment and a fiery explosion sent a massive plume of vinyl chloride and other toxins for miles.

Jenna, born and raised in East Palestine, felt like she had to speak out as concerns mounted over the safety of the town and the health of its residents. She says kids and teens share the same worries as the adults in their lives.

“We want answers just like adults,” she said. “And what I’m trying to do is be a speaker for the youth, and I’m trying to get them strong enough to speak for themselves.”

FILE - A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern trains, on Feb. 6, 2023. Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw is set to testify before an Ohio Senate rail safety panel on Tuesday, April 18, more than two months after the fiery train derailment rocked the village of East Palestine. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

Doug Simpson grew up in the East Palestine home he shares with his wife, Vicki Hoffman.

In the aftermath of the crash, Jenna saw family members speak up at community town halls and felt compelled to do the same.

“That’s how I’ve been raised,” she said. “My family, we’re solid and we’re not quiet.”

Growing movement: At first, the work started small — a Google Doc. She created a chart to compile concerns and questions mostly from people at school, including her bus driver and teachers.

She wrote how one teacher worries about growing vegetables in his yard and if he will have to pay for new soil. She jotted down her own concerns about the kids who have to walk by the creek to school and washing dishes when there’s dead fish in the water.

It didn’t take long for Jenna to start volunteering for River Valley Organizing, an organization focused on environmental justice and other issues impacting the Appalachian Ohio River Valley.

In about two weeks, volunteering in her free time turned into a youth leadership role.

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She now spends her weekends going door-to-door in East Palestine, offering free soil and water testing, and giving residents an opportunity to share how the derailment impacted them.

People are often surprised to find a teenage advocate at their doorstep, she said.

“They’re like, ‘I can’t believe you’re this young and you’re actually doing this,’” she said. “They say thank you, you know, they’re happy to see such a young person get out there.”

For now, the canvassing is just a two-person job between her and another River Valley Organizing staff member. But she says she’s determined to hit every house in East Palestine. She has already signed up hundreds of people for the free testing and plans to expand out to a mile radius from the crash site.

And that chart she first created now includes the accounts of more than 100 people.

‘Flabbergasted’: Stella Gamble, Jenna’s grandmother, remembers passing the community park shortly after the derailment on a bike ride with her granddaughter. Jenna was immediately troubled seeing kids playing around the creek and throwing rocks in the water.

“I think that was what started it,” Gamble said. “She was just as flabbergasted as I was that there was no protection. Nobody seemed even a bit concerned.”

She says teenagers like Jenna have been forced to grow up fast in what’s become a “nightmare situation.”

“Being a teenager yourself, the last thing on your mind is what’s going to happen to you when you’re 40,” Gamble said. “You’re not thinking that far ahead. She’s had to grow up and put being a teenager aside for right now and take on a burden that she shouldn’t have to be taking on when she’s 17 years old.”

But Gamble isn’t surprised that her granddaughter has stepped up.

“Jen is not one to go with the crowd,” she said. “Jen is her own person, and when she sees injustice, when she sees things going on that she doesn’t feel right about, she does not have a problem vocalizing that and getting involved.”

Earlier this month, River Valley Organizing and Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh co-hosted a youth town hall attended by EPA officials and experts across Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The intent was to give young people a place to ask questions from independent scientists and voice their concerns.

Jenna, who helped coordinate the event, spoke about her perspective as a young East Palestinian.

“We matter just like adults,” she said. “We’re mostly worried about our future, the long-term effects.”

‘No treatment, nothing’: Jenna spoke about her 13-year-old twin sisters going to the hospital and being told that they had chemical damage to their lungs. Jenna remembers the family being sent home from the hospital after the diagnosis without answers or a remedy.

“There’s no treatment, nothing,” she said “They just had to fight it off, basically.”

She’s watched other family members get sick, too, including her 6-year-old sister, who could barely get out of bed at one point, along with her mother and grandmother.

The past two months have been marked by instability, as Jenna’s household of 10 temporarily evacuated to a condo and then a hotel. The family has stayed out of town as much as possible, only occasionally dropping by their home to pick up belongings or feed their animals, which includes a parrot, a dog, two guinea pigs and 40 rabbits.

The East Palestine School District also shut down for a week after the train crashed. Jenna and her siblings returned to school once classes started again. She said the chemical smell many residents have described still permeated in the school hallways, what she compares to the stench of lemon cleaner.

“There were no hazard signs on the water fountains,” she said. “They said it was OK to drink the water when there was no result of what was in the water yet. I was pretty worried.”

People cried in class and some asked their parents to pick them up from school because it was too much to handle, she recalled.

Losing home: Spending most of her time in a cramped hotel room, she’s had to sacrifice normal teenage life. The hangouts with friends and cousins, homemade meals, shopping and even walks at the park all disappeared after the derailment.

“Moving constantly and packing up everything all the time,” she said. “It’s just stressful, honestly, and tiring. I miss hanging out with my friends, but I’m putting my health first.”

If the family can’t return to East Palestine, they’re considering renting until they can find something more permanent.

Jenna said more of her friends are talking about moving away as well. One of her friends she’s known since they were in diapers has moved to Florida.

As she grapples with no longer feeling safe in her hometown and the uncertainty of leaving, Jenna feels as if she no longer has a place to call home.

“All my family, we’ve all been raised there,” she said. “We’re thinking about moving to South Carolina, but to adjust to a new school, new friends. I’ve been going to East Palestine all my life. I grew up with my friends. It’s just this weird feeling like you don’t have a home.”

While she doesn’t know what the future holds, Jenna is working to do what she can to encourage more kids and teens to make their voices heard. She plans to create a TikTok account where she can compile videos made by East Palestine youth.

“It’s our future, and I just really want people to tell their story and be strong and stand up,” she said. “They have a say so just like anybody else. Age doesn’t matter when it comes to something like this.”