Opinion: East Palestine resident on the year since the Ohio train wreck

‘At the time, I didn’t realize that we were watching our old life burn away,’ resident Misti Allison writes of the 2023 Norfolk Southern derailment
A train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 17, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

A train passes through East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 17, 2023. (Arvin Temkar/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

I will never forget the night of Feb. 3, 2023, when 38 cars of a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Three days later, right down the street from my home and many others’ homes, 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride were purposefully ignited, resulting in a huge ball of fire rising into the air.

At the time, I didn’t realize that we were watching our old life burn away. Toxic chemicals poured into our air, water and land. Afterwards, nothing would be the same. All I knew then was that it looked like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Something you read about in the news. Not something in your own neighborhood.

But it was only the beginning.

When we moved to East Palestine five years ago, we thought we had simplified our lives. This was small town America and my husband’s hometown. A perfect place to raise our two children.

In the time before the crash, we were aware of the long trains that regularly pass by, but we never really thought much about them.

Misti Allison poses with her son, Blake, and her daughter, Audrey, at her home, Saturday, July 15, 2023, in East Palestine. Allison testified before a Senate committee in March concerning the Feb. 3, 2023, Norfolk Southern freight train derailment. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

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Credit: (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Despite life continuing to move forward, it’s still hard to think about anything else. Even a year after the crash, our community has proven resilient despite being haunted by this specter. The incident has had far-reaching consequences, affecting the lives of residents, while harming the environment and the nation as a whole.

What have we learned, and what can be done to prevent this from happening to another community? Ultimately, the first anniversary highlights the importance of standing up for what’s right and a grim reminder that everything takes longer than you think.

Robust safety regulations are imperative

Let’s start with common-sense railway safety regulations — particularly comprehensive and modernized safety measures governing the transportation of hazardous materials.

In March, I testified before Congress, pushing for strong protections that would prevent a similar tragedy from ever happening and ensuring that East Palestine is not forgotten. Nearly a year later, the Railway Safety Act of 2023 has not even made its way to the Senate floor. This is totally unacceptable.

I would argue that this isn’t a political issue. It is a people issue. Congress must pass and sign the Railway Safety Act of 2023 into law to improve train inspections and mandate that more trains be subject to stringent safety requirements. That isn’t going to completely solve the problem, but it is a start. For decades, Norfolk Southern and other rail companies have fought against safety rules, and sought to reduce costs — all in the name of profit. Businesses shouldn’t be allowed to put families like mine at risk. They must be held accountable. Americans need to be protected from further catastrophes with bipartisan support from our elected officials.

Environmental and health concerns persist

Are we safe in East Palestine? I would like to think so, but I honestly don’t know. Slow cleanup and delayed testing results robs residents of our peace of mind, and perhaps even more. Contradictory information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and independent researchers isn’t exactly reassuring, including when the EPA took the first step toward banning vinyl chloride in December.

The “Keep out, testing in progress” signs remain in place along the two creeks running through town and are not expected to be taken down anytime soon. Recent assessments reveal alarming levels of contamination, with both creeks still showing more than 55% oily sheen, while unaffected upstream areas only have 8% sheen.

Residents continue to report ailments such as headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems, raising concerns about long-term health effects. This is compounded by mental health issues, including trauma, a loss of trust, and feelings of abandonment by failing systems meant to protect Americans.

Mothers will stop at nothing to protect their children and I choose to turn my grief and anxiety into action. The drive to protect my kids and community fueled my decision to join Moms Clean Air Force, run for mayor of East Palestine, and to participate in every health study possible.

I and many other residents have gotten our arms jabbed with needles, peed in cups, and sported silicone wristbands in hopes that our health testing yields insights into what our children are facing. Yet a year later, we still don’t have the complete results from this testing, causing an undertone of unease to ripple through the town.

Preventing disasters and rebuilding

This horrific, preventable accident put a huge scarlet letter on our town that will have lasting impact for years to come. Despite the hardships we’ve endured, my community has demonstrated remarkable strength. Many communities have recovered from disasters, and I am confident that East Palestine can, too.

In the aftermath of the train derailment, I’ve learned that life waits for nobody. You must keep going — even when you don’t want to. The only way out is through. My way of coping is to see cracks of light in the dark. I am a firm believer that if you spend time thinking about the worst-case scenario, it’s only fair to spend time thinking about the best-case scenario.

A sign greets motorists, Monday, Jan. 22, 2024, in East Palestine. (Matt Freed for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Matt Freed

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Credit: Matt Freed

We can never go back to our life before this disaster, but we can make sure that East Palestine not only recovers but thrives. Norfolk Southern has repeatedly said that they will “make it right,” but who determines what is right in a situation like this? Does the upgraded village water system make it all better? And will the “Home Value Assurance Program’' put us at ease? The company’s pledged $25 million park upgrade will be nice. But if given the choice, we all would prefer that this catastrophe never happened at all. One year in, so much progress has been made yet there is more work to be done, both in our village and with this underlying systemic issue of railway safety.

Ten years from now, I want to be able to say, ‘Yes, we went through a lot but we are able to build back stronger. Yes, our community was fractured, but we were able to be reunited again. And yes, this was a terrible event in our nation’s history, but it was a catalyst for meaningful change.’ My children, all the children in our community, and every child in America deserve it.

Misti Allison is a software product marketer based in East Palestine, Ohio, where she lives with her family. She is a former candidate for mayor of the town, and a member of Moms Clean Air Force, and holds a master’s degree in public health.

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