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East Palestine residents want answers — nearly a year after train's toxic spill

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Misti Allison says East Palestine, Ohio, cannot forget what happened one year ago tomorrow. A Norfolk Southern train full of hazardous chemicals derailed and caught fire about a mile from her home. The crash spewed toxins into the air and water. More and more people got evacuation orders. And for 12 months, Allison asked questions. She went to Congress with the group Moms Clean Air Force to demand tougher rail safety laws. She made a high-profile, if unsuccessful, run for mayor, and a year after the disaster, Allison told me, East Palestine is still cleaning up and looking for answers.

MISTI ALLISON: I am a mom. I have a daughter who is 2. Her name is Audrey. And I have a son, Blake. He's 8. And I think the biggest thing that I've learned through this entire year is that mothers will stop at nothing to protect their children. That drive to protect my kids and my community is really what has fueled my decision in the past year to be an outspoken advocate. And also, I am doing anything that I can to participate in every health study that comes my way, so I can essentially be a canary in the coal mine to see how this potential exposure is impacting my health and my children's health and, ultimately, our community's health as well.

FADEL: I imagine your 2-year-old daughter doesn't necessarily understand what's going on around her yet. But your son, what does he understand about what happened and what's happening?

ALLISON: So thankfully, my daughter is very blissfully ignorant and provides a lot of comedic relief to the family, but...

FADEL: Two is so cute.

ALLISON: (Laughter) Yes, it is - chaotic and cute. But my son is very mindful of everything that's going on, and so we've had a lot of fears and anxieties that have come up in the past year that absolutely breaks my heart as a parent. For instance, he asked me at one point last year shortly after coming home from evacuating. He said, Mom, are we going to die from living in our own house? Are we going to have to move? Walking home from school one day, he jumped in a puddle and said, Mom, does this puddle have vinyl chloride in it? Am I going to be OK?

FADEL: Wow.

ALLISON: And...

FADEL: A 7-year-old.

ALLISON: Yes, he was 7 at the time. He's 8 now. And even to this day, we had an incident last night where he had a rash on his hands. Now, that could just be from, you know, being the winter in Ohio and, you know, washing your hands so frequently. But, you know, he said, is this from something that's going on around town?

FADEL: Oh, wow.

ALLISON: And so he's so hypervigilant of that. And I would like to be able to say, no, everything is fine, but those concerns are still lingering in the back of our minds and very honestly, front and center, at least for me as a parent...

FADEL: Yeah.

ALLISON: ...One year later.

FADEL: Do you think your community is safe to live in?

ALLISON: I would like to think so, but there is still so much more conflicting information. There are millions of data points from the EPA that suggest that the air is fine, the water's fine. However, there have been so many different independent researchers and wonderful academic researchers that I've been partnering with that are suggesting that there are still some lingering concerns.

FADEL: So you live in East Palestine. You feel safe enough to still live there with your family. But what needs to happen next to make your community safer so that you can tell your son when he asks in the future, is this from potential exposure? No.

ALLISON: I am very passionate about having more long-term health care research and monitoring because in the very beginning, we were essentially told that the train derailment would essentially be probably an inconvenience in our life for a month, and then a month turned into two months, and we're still talking about this a year later.

FADEL: Wow.

ALLISON: And then also, I strongly feel that there needs to be some frequent indoor air testing, soil testing and water testing for anyone who wants it. And then I should say, too, that this is a very personal situation, and I think it would be nice if there was relocation assistance for anyone who wants it. Nobody should be forced to stay in an area if they don't feel comfortable.

FADEL: Is there something that others can take away from what happened in East Palestine?

ALLISON: There are over 3 million people that are unknowingly at risk due to the transportation of, you know, some of these toxic chemicals and hazardous materials. East Palestine really serves as a cautionary tale. And something that my mom would always tell me is that you need to find a way and not an excuse. Let's roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can make this just a safer world to live in.

FADEL: Misti Allison in East Palestine, Ohio. Thank you for speaking with us.

ALLISON: It was my pleasure. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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