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Norfolk Southern Won’t Clean Up Their Mess Unless We Make Them

Above Photo: A fish lays dead following a train derailment prompting health concerns on February 20, 2023 in East Palestine, Ohio. Michael Swensen via Getty Images.

“Even early on, I knew it would not be safe to go back home.”

It’s been over 100 days since the catastrophic derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying over 100,000 gallons of toxic materials occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb 3. Since then, residents of East Palestine and the surrounding area in Ohio and Pennsylvania have had their lives turned completely upside down. Entire families have been uprooted from their homes, with many having to live in hotels or wherever they can find shelter, unable to return home out of fear of exposure to chemicals that were spilled into the water and soil from the derailment and spewed into the air from Norfolk Southern’s controlled burn” of the vinyl chloride contained within multiple derailed train cars. Even though government and company officials have claimed the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink, residents have continuously reported negative health effects from skin rashes, headaches, and dizzy spells to nausea, diarrhea, shortness of breath, and mouth numbness. Farm animals, pets, and crops have been contaminated, property values have plummeted, local businesses have shuttered or are barely surviving — all the while, frustrated residents report feeling lied to, misled, disregarded, and abandoned by Norfolk Southern and by their state and federal governments, and their ongoing nightmare has been gradually forgotten by the national media.

In this urgent episode, we speak with Ashley McCollum, Kayla Miller, and Christina Siceloff — three residents of East Palestine and the surrounding area in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and members of the East Palestine Unity Council — about what they, their families, and their communities are going through, how they are banding together to provide mutual aid for one another, and what we can all do to help.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Ashley McCollum: Well, I’m Ashley McCollum. I’m a resident of East Palestine, Ohio. I live about a block away from the derailment. I’ve lived there for about eight years. Life was normally slow-paced, really friendly environment. In East Palestine, we had church events, everything. Before that, I really didn’t do too much other than spend time with my kids, go camping, really be in the outdoors. Not too much of TV, radio – Well, music was one thing. But kind of slow-paced. Bingo on Sundays, hanging out with family and friends.

And the night of the derailment, whenever that happened, it was odd, because the first thing I heard was ambulance or sirens, and at that time it’s not common to hear in town. So after I heard the second round, I was a little bit alarmed. Me and my son jumped up and we looked out the front door, nothing was going on. But as soon as I opened the back door, all you could see were flames. It almost looked like our town was on fire.

My son started to go into a panic, and it happened exactly like how you see in movies. I got down to his level and I said, everything’s going to be okay. Grab what you need. I’m going to move the car around front and I’m going to grab our animals. He got everything together. I called my mom and told her to be there. She came out front and sat with my son while I tried to get the last of my animals. I have two dogs and two cats, so it was a little bit hectic to begin with and trying to wrangle them all up.

I started seeing people come out of their houses in a panic saying, what’s going on? I spoke to a neighbor. At that point, he said, this isn’t a normal fire. Can you smell it? I’m like, yeah, it doesn’t smell normal, just a normal bonfire or burn, it smelled chemical. It was really odd. I started going to different houses saying, you guys we’re probably going to have to leave, start evacuating. And they’re like, no, no one’s come and told us that. And the second I start saying that, someone comes around to tell us to evacuate.

I looked at my house, and I honestly thought that was going to be the last time that I would ever see it again, because I just thought the town was on fire still. I drove over to the neighbor’s house, going and following my mom to her home to stay at, and I gave her my number and I said, if my house catches on fire, please call me. Please let me know what happens. And she said, I will. At that point, I had another person coming over to talk and said, you have to be evacuated too. So at that point, everyone that I could see was being evacuated.

When we got back to my mom’s, we couldn’t sleep. We were up all night. My son still had issues even days after whenever we knew what was going on, him waking up at night and reliving it in his dreams. So the whole event really, really turned things upside down and has even affected him to the point where when he hears a fire alarm, he starts to say, no, not again. And he’s only six.

So we’ve kind of started growing and adjusting to what’s going on around us, whether we like it or not, and we know we can’t go back home. Even early on, I knew it would not be safe to go back home

Kayla Miller: My name is Kayla Miller. I live three and a half miles away from the derailment. I live beside Leslie Run, which is the contaminated creek.

The night of the derailment, I heard through social media that it had happened, and I had a friend staying with me at the time, and we decided to go up and see what was going on. And he works at NAPA right beside the tracks there, and he wanted to make sure that the store was okay, because we didn’t have a whole lot of details exactly where it was. There were conflicting stories.

And so we went up, and it was terrifying. The flames were massive, the smell, it literally took your breath away. So we went up and we didn’t stay extremely long because once we started smelling it, we knew something wasn’t right. Even though we didn’t know exactly what was going on, like I said, it took our breaths away.

So we came home, and like I said, I’m three and a half miles, so at that point in time I didn’t really think anything of it. I mean, yeah, it was terrifying, but I was far enough away, I thought. And then, I caught word through some friends and neighbors on Monday that they were going to be doing the controlled burn. And I actually have a friend who works on the railroad and he told me, he said, you have to get out. I know what we haul on these trains. You have to get out. So he helped me get out. I live on a small farm, but I have 100-plus animals and three kids. So I had to make really hard decisions that day and I took as many as I could in that stock trailer and we evacuated.

I think the big thing that really got to me to make the decision – Because I was not told I had to evacuate, it was my own decision – Was when I went, there was a road down from me, there were cops sitting at the end of it, blocking it. And I stopped and I asked him, I said, person to person here, I have three kids, I have 100 animals. If you were in my shoes, what would you do? And he looked at me and said, I don’t even want to be standing here right now. And we are ordered to leave at 3:15. And I said, enough said. I went home, and we packed up, and we left.

My animals went to a different place than I did. I went to a friend’s house and we stayed overnight, but I had to come back the next day. We came back the next evening once I had heard through the grapevine that everything seems to be calmed down and the smell wasn’t so bad where I was at, so I had to come back cause I had to feed the animals. So I’ve been back ever since, and I have smelled it a few times. I’ve been down to the creek and as of right now, I was just down there not long ago, it is still pluming with the rainbow chemicals and stuff.

It’s been a very crazy rollercoaster ride. My kids, it’s like the same with Ashley, my kids have had… When we hear sirens and stuff, they ask me, Mommy, is that another train? I’m still not drinking my water because my test results are still not back. Yeah, it’s been a very, very hard rollercoaster ride through all of this.

Beforehand, like Ashley was saying, we lived a simple life. I have a small farm, homestead, whatever you want to call it, live off the land. Teach my kids how to live off the land, raise the animals. I hatch chicks, and I sell eggs, and I sell baby goats. And now I can’t eat my eggs, I won’t sell them to other people. My hatch rate has decreased this year. And whether or not that’s just coincidental, I don’t know. There’s no way for me to know. I have goats that will be due here in July, and I’m hoping that we don’t have any stillborn, that we don’t have any deformities. I don’t know if it would happen yet. That’s the thing, they haven’t been transparent with us, so we don’t know what the future is going to be. We have no idea.

So it’s affected my life in that way. That’s my way of contributing, because I’m a stay-at-home mom and my husband works out of town, so that’s my way of contributing to our income, and that’s been affected. So that part’s been hard, because it’s been something I’ve worked hard for.

I was born and raised here. My parents are my neighbors and they live in the house that I grew up in. So my kids are able to walk through the woods and go to grandma and grandpa’s. And people talk about how much do you think, Norfolk Southern, we’re entitled to with them? And as far as financially and… Honestly, I don’t care about the money, that’s not going to fix this. If they were to buy my house plus some, I’m still not going to be able to leave and have the same life that I have here. I have worked so hard to get this life, years I have worked to get this life.

So that’s the biggest frustrating part, is knowing it’s not safe. My kids have been sick for three and a half months. One gets better, the next one gets sick, and it’s been just a revolving door. I’ll have two sick at the same time. I’ve had them at the doctors, they’ve already put on their charts they’ve been chemically exposed. I myself have been to the doctors, chemically exposed. But they keep saying, everything’s fine, everything’s safe, your water’s safe, the air’s safe. They won’t even test for my soil. They knocked on my door asking to test my well, but they won’t test my soil, which makes zero sense to me.

And through all of this, I have joined a nonprofit called Soup Mama Official, and they have been bringing in donations from the beginning and continue to do so. They’re great people. And we have a supply drop coming up on June 3. They’re really trying to focus on water because we’re having a shortage of it and people can’t find it. And we’re even having a hard time finding it. It’s very frustrating.

With this whole experience, it’s been, you get a door that’s cracked open, it gets shut in your face, because you think that you have information and then something contradicts it or you get shut down. Our own governor actually shut down a benefit concert that we were going to have in Cincinnati, and he shut it down because he said that we are not in a state of emergency, we do not need donations, we do not need a benefit. Which to me, I didn’t even know was possible, because it was at a private venue. And this is the kind of thing that’s happening. And I’ve heard that a few times about different situations that the state is stepping in and not allowing things to happen.

I know of a water shipment that was supposed to come in and it got shut down by the state saying that it’s not an emergency, we don’t need it. But yet there’s me here who’s still waiting on her test results from Norfolk Southern and the Health Department. And I’ve been told not to drink my water until I get them, and I’m running out of water. So that’s what we’re dealing with, with the frustrations of it.

Christina Siceloff: So I’m Christina Siceloff, 5.9 miles from the derailment. I’m in South Beaver Township in Pennsylvania. I found out about the derailment through social media as well, and had just put my son to bed and was laying there next to him as he fell asleep, and saw that the derailment had happened and it had possibly affected one of the gas stations in town as well. And immediately I jumped up out of bed and tell my dad, who we live with, what had happened. And we went to look outside. We live in the middle of the woods. And when we went and we looked outside, you could see fire in the sky and you could see smoke through the trees as well. And immediately, we thought East Palestine was on fire. We went and started calling our neighbors and telling them… My dad, he said to the neighbor that East Palestine was on fire because we didn’t know what was going on.

All through the night till about 4:00 in the morning I had paid attention to social media because, where I’m at, we don’t really have access to cable, and so we get most of our news off the internet. And everything was just really crazy, and not really getting a lot of answers from the news aside from social media and people talking.

And so whenever the burn happened, I was getting ready to take my son to school. And I was even telling people, like, I don’t know if I should take my kid to school because I had heard that they could detonate some of the rail cars, and wasn’t sure if we would have a place to come back to once they did that. So right before I took him to school, they evacuated the school district – And he goes to afternoon classes – So they evacuated, that made my decision for that. But then I started thinking, do we need to leave? And I started looking into hotels. They were all booked up, and really we didn’t even know how far we should go.

We got evacuation notices on our cell phones, but they weren’t for us. So we still weren’t sure if we were in the safe zone. And then, when I ran up to town in Chippewa, PA, I went up there to go get food for our animals in case we were told to shelter in place. And when we were up in town, there were a bunch of police vehicles rushing around and they were shutting down some of the roads so that they could do their controlled burn. And when I saw that, it panicked me and I was like, well, I got to get home and we got to leave.

But when we got home, my dad… He’s lived here for 40 years, and he said, I’m not leaving unless they come and tell me to leave. And so I just kept waiting and seeing what news would come out if we needed to leave and contacting people, like family members or friends, to see if we could go anywhere to stay, and couldn’t get ahold of anybody. So we ended up, 15 minutes before the release, we decided, well, I guess we’re going to sit here and see if we get blown away.

And we stayed at home, and we’ve continued to stay here, because for where I’m at, there’s no help from Norfolk Southern. We’re on a private well as well. And we’ve been told in PA too not to use our private wells. And so we’ve been trying to use bottled water for almost everything. We even give bottled water to our animals, like our dog, cats, chickens. And we rely on donations a lot as well, because using that much water, it’s hard to afford bottled water for everything.

So before the derailment, I was just getting ready to look for work again, since I had my son and then COVID happened, so I stayed home with him to make sure he’d be safe. And my dad has medical problems too. So anyway, we went and I stayed home, and I was just getting ready to start looking for work. And I actually ended up having an interview somewhere when the derailment happened and I was like, I don’t even know what’s going on right now.

So once I called the place back to do the interview, they had said, well, we have a hiring freeze now and we don’t know what’s going on. So since then, I’ve joined with the Unity Council because there’s not really been much help for people in PA, and some of the residents here felt like we needed to get involved and try and get answers for our community and try and get help for our community.

And I’ve still not had my water tested. I’ve not had any soil or air testing done either. That was from the government I didn’t have any testing done, but we did have a guy from Purdue University come out and check our well water a couple weeks ago. So we’re waiting on results from that. But the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection had told me that they were not going to test anybody outside of two miles because they didn’t find anything wrong. But yet our representative has told us if we were on the list to have our water checked, then we were supposed to get our water checked. But since they told us that, they have also checked, and the DEP told them the same thing. So now we’re waiting to see if we can get results from Purdue and see if we can get some kind of filtration or anything to help with our water situation.

Maximillian Alvarez: All right, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today, brought to you in partnership within In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.

So as y’all have been hearing over the past 15 minutes, we have a really important episode for y’all to listen to, and I really want to ask that y’all listen closely, because we are very honored to have Kayla, Ashley, and Christina joining us from in and around East Palestine, Ohio, including the surrounding area in Ohio and Pennsylvania. You guys know the basics of the story we’re going to talk about here today. If you’ve listened to our past episodes with railroad workers, if you’ve been following our coverage at The Real News Network or even the segments I’ve done for Breaking Points in the past couple months, then you know about the truly catastrophic Norfolk Southern train derailment that occurred on Feb. 3 of this year, followed a couple days later by a controlled burn”.

This train, as we know, was carrying over 100,000 gallons of petrochemicals, including vinyl chloride. The decision was made at the time to, as we said, conduct what was called a controlled burn, but what looked to all of us like a massive fireball from hell spewing plumes of black gas into the air for miles and miles around.

And we’ve heard and read about the horrendous stories of the fallout of this train derailment. I mean, it’s been over 100 days at this point. And what you’re hearing from Kayla, Ashley, and Christina, this is what anyone who still listens and still cares about this catastrophe – Which we should – Anyone who listens will be hearing about people still getting sick, getting rashes, getting headaches, shortness of breath, other ailments, people not knowing if their water’s safe to drink, if the air is safe to breathe, if the soil has been contaminated beyond repair, if they’ll ever be able to grow crops on that land again.

Property values, of course, have plummeted. So who the hell is going to be able to sell their house and leave. Or those who want to stay, what kind of situation are they left in when Norfolk Southern itself has ostensibly taken charge of the cleanup efforts, and yet, residents like Kayla, Ashley and Christina are not getting their questions answered from Norfolk Southern? We’ve heard horror stories of people playing phone tag with the EPA, with government offices, trying to get basic answers like, can my children drink the water? and being given the runaround, not getting the support that they need. Trying to get money to pay for Airbnbs or hotels so that they don’t have to stay in their homes, which many suspect are still contaminated by the toxic fallout of that train derailment and the chemical burn that ensued.

So like I said, we have talked about this catastrophe in East Palestine, largely from the vantage point of railroad workers whom we’ve been speaking to over and over again for the past year and a half, as you guys know. As you guys also know, many of those railroad workers, back when we were interviewing them over the course of the high-stakes contract fight between the 12 rail unions and the major railroad carriers last year, a lot of those workers warned us that something like this was going to happen. That it was really only a matter of time before the railroad industry’s greedy practices: the cost cutting, the staff cuts year after year, reducing the size of the crews on those trains, reducing the number of people inspecting the cars, inspecting the track, responding to distress calls in the dispatch office, all while making the trains longer and heavier and piling more toxic materials on them, while maximizing their profits and their shareholder payouts. This was always a recipe for disaster. And the people of East Palestine and the surrounding area are the ones paying for that.

And so that’s what we’re here to talk about today. From Ashley, Kayla and Christina’s firsthand experience of what has really been happening on the ground over there in the East Palestine area, what folks are going through now, what help they’re getting or not getting, and what we, all of us, can do to support them and to get accountability from this company, from these government officials, and everyone who has failed the people of East Palestine – And many people have failed them.

And so again, I wanted to first start by thanking you three for taking time to sit down and chat with us amidst this hell that you are living through. I genuinely can’t express enough how sorry I am that you are going through this, how unjust it is, how unfair it is, how unforgivable it is. And I know it’ll mean very little, but I did just want to say, from the bottom of my heart, that I and all of our listeners are sending nothing but love and solidarity to you all, your families, your neighbors, and we’re going to do everything we can to get this conversation out there to make sure as many people are as informed and up to date as possible.

Now, I want to take a step back for a second, because y’all did such an incredible job with those introductions, really taking us back to that nightmarish moment on Feb. 3 and the hours and days afterwards. I want to, before we return to that moment, the immediate time surrounding the derailment, I want to take a quick step back before this event upended all of your lives.

Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and the life that you had in and around East Palestine before this derailment happened? What did a typical week look like for you and your family? What does this area look like? What kind of businesses are there? What do folks do for fun? That’s been really lost in a lot of the reporting, is that the whole area and the people have become synonymous with this disaster, but you guys are so much more than that, and your lives are so much more than that. So I wanted to start by honoring that and letting our listeners hear a little bit more about you all and the town that you lived in before this Norfolk Southern train derailment blew everything up.

Ashley McCollum: Well, like I said, we had such an inviting town and a great community to be in. I did the stay-at-home mom thing, took my kids to sports: karate, wrestling. So it was kind of the normal schedule. Hanging out with the kids. The weekends, we had a full house, everyone hanging out and different things here and there in town. We’d go and let the kids ride bikes, go to the park, and now we can’t really do that. So we had the normal basic kind of life. And I always refer to it as being a boring life, but no matter how boring you think it is in the moment, when it’s gone, that was the best life you ever had. And that’s what I’m really sitting in and thinking about. And you miss those silly little things, even, oh well that cart that’s here, I stubbed my toe on it. I would love to do that again. And I can’t even go back into my home because I’m afraid we’ll get sick.

I mean, even with school, my kids did really well, straight A’s, had no problems. So we had the normal, average, everyday life that everyone else has. And you sit and think this isn’t going to happen to you. Or you see things on the news, well, I’m in a safe area, it’s not going to happen. But it sure did. And I couldn’t even explain really fully what you sit and think. Like, I had this everyday schedule: wake up in the morning, take the kids to school, get stuff together, and now you sit in a hotel and really blankly stare and think, this has got to be a joke. There’s no way things are handled like this. I had it made. I didn’t live in riches or anything, but that was my life.

Kayla Miller: Before the derailment, pretty slow life. Stay-at-home mom. I have three kids: eight, five, and two. My husband works out of town, so I run a small farm here. I have all sorts of birds: chickens, geese, ducks, the works, pigs, goats. So a normal day for me, or normal week would be, get up, get the kids ready for school, take them to the bus stop – Because we’re luckily open enrolled. I’m in the East Palestine school district, but we’re open enrolled at a neighboring town – So get up, take them to the bus stop, come home, I have my two-year-old, get him breakfast, your normal everyday stuff, pick up the house, do laundry, take care of the farm. On weekends and stuff and in the summer, we camp, we ride four-wheelers. We like to hike a lot, especially around here. My parents have 15 acres, and I have 13 that connect to each other. So we have a lot of room to roam. My daughter’s really into forging and hunting mushrooms and stuff. So that’s something that we really like to do.

And now, I haven’t been on a hike with them yet this year because I really don’t want them out, because a lot of the time we would go down by the creek that is contaminated here and skip rocks and find crawfish. We haven’t done that this year because I don’t want them anywhere around it. And trying to explain that to an eight, five, and two-year-old is next to impossible. They don’t understand it.

And it’s gotten so bad to the point of… My kids are country kids. My closest neighbor is my parents, and they’re over 500 yards away and we can’t see each other. So trying to explain to country kids that you don’t want them playing in the mud puddles. And as they’re out here playing, I can’t keep them in, I can’t. I have an 800 square foot house. It’s not emotionally, mentally possible.

So when they’re outside, they’re playing in this stuff and they’re touching their toys and they’re touching the ground, and I have a two-year-old; they eat everything. Everything goes in their mouth. And the entire time you’re thinking to yourself, is this hurting my children? Is them playing outside, being children, is it hurting them? And that’s the thing is, we don’t have the answers because they’re not giving them to us. They’re telling us what we want to hear. And I say that in very literal terms, because they tell us one thing, but we flat out experience a completely different thing, and they expect us to trust them.

So my trust in our government, our officials has plummeted since all of this has happened. My anxiety levels are so much higher, because like I said, I’m letting my kids out to play and I’m wondering if I’m giving them a slow death sentence at this point. My biggest thing is, am I going to be able to see my kids graduate, or am I going to end up with cancer through all of this? Are they going to end up with cancer? Are they going to be able to graduate? Is my daughter going to be able to have kids? Are my boys going to be able to have kids? These are all things that are effects of these chemicals.

But yeah, we had a small town, slow life. I live out in the country, I grow my own food. I’m not doing that this year. I can’t put a garden in; I don’t know if my soil’s okay, they won’t test it. I usually do meat chickens, not doing that this year, because guess what? They eat off the ground. So our lives have definitely been turned upside down. And it’s a constant not knowing what’s going to happen, are you doing the right thing? And it sucks. That’s the bottom line, is it sucks big time.

Christina Siceloff: So before the derailment, my son and I, we had really just started getting back out visiting people – And he’s in preschool, so he just went to preschool this year. So just really getting out and starting to socialize with people again. But we would go up to East Palestine Park, and last summer we would go swimming up there, we’d go to the park and play, and other parks in the area as well. But last summer, we had a garden and we got chickens, started living more off of what we could grow at home. And so he was starting to learn a lot of that kind of stuff. And my neighbors, they’re pretty far away from us as well, so there wasn’t really a lot of people to play with in our area. So we would go to other places like East Palestine to have interaction with people.

But my neighbors farm… And a lot of that is just done for now. We’re not planting a garden either. Our chickens have had a reduction in their eggs as well. And so we’re not really sure if they’re going to continue to survive, even.

And since the derailment had happened, we pretty much stayed at home again. My son, he likes to go outside and play. But like Kayla said, it’s a lot of, you don’t know if it’s safe to be outside and play. And I don’t know if it’s safe for us to go outside and breathe. After being sick for three months, you wonder if you’re ever going to be better again. And when you go outside and you feel sicker, then it’s hard to say that it’s okay to go outside and play. And it’s not just at your home, it’s every town you go to around here that you feel sick. But still, we’re waiting for answers as to what is really going on. Because stuff just doesn’t make sense when you’re sick everywhere you go, but yet everything is supposed to be fine.

Maximillian Alvarez: I don’t know how you all are holding it together enough to say that so calmly, because I’m over here shaking in my chair. Because like you said, you’re all going through this, you’re sitting there wondering if your damn kids can even play outside or if that’s going to give them cancer. You don’t know what you’re going to be able to do with your chickens, your crops, your house, so on and so forth. You’re sitting there amidst an actual, massive crisis. And it’s like Norfolk Southern, the company in the first quarter of 2023 brought in over $3 billion dollars in revenue. The media made a circus out of East Palestine for a couple weeks and now they’ve moved on. Politicians, elected officials, people working in agencies like the EPA, who are supposed to be there to help, are not giving you the answers that you desperately need. Unacceptable is the most understated word I can think of. This is so beyond unacceptable. I don’t even know what to do with myself.

Kayla Miller: I think it’s gotten to the point where we’ve just become numb.

Christina Siceloff: I was thinking that.

Ashley McCollum: I get to the point too.

Kayla Miller: Some interviews I can do and I can hold it together, and then other ones I’m a mess. It just depends on the day. I don’t know. Yeah, I think we’ve become numb to it because we’ve talked about it so much and we’re screaming from the rooftops for help and it’s almost like a routine at this point. And it’s sad to say that, but we’re fighting so hard to try and get the help that we need and get the officials to do their jobs properly.

Maximillian Alvarez: I forgot to mention that amidst all of that, trains keep derailing. Like we kept saying in our interviews with railroad workers, it’s not as if this one-off, horrifying derailment happened, but it was a freak accident. It’s like no, there were like five derailments in the next week, and they just keep happening. It’s not just Norfolk Southern, it’s all of them. And it’s happening all over the place. Yeah, go ahead.

Kayla Miller: There’s a train on fire right now that is 10 miles from me.

Maximillian Alvarez: Oh, come on! Come on.

Kayla Miller: Right now, right before we got on here, we caught word of it. It is 10 miles from me and it is on fire.

Maximillian Alvarez: Unbelievable.

Ashley McCollum: In our group, we found this out in our group because we’ve come together, our community, we were strong as a community before, but it seems like after all this happened, I’ve met all these people, I’ve met these two ladies from that. And we’re constantly communicating, because if not, no one else communicates to us or with us. Even from the very beginning and from their stories, they didn’t know. They didn’t know what happened, and they found out more information from media and different outlets like that. And even at that point, it’s not full information. So everyone’s just sitting and waiting. And I get to the point where instead of crying, I kind of laugh because it’s just so insane. It’s the definition of insanity, because we’re sitting here asking –

Kayla Miller: If you don’t laugh, you cry.

Ashley McCollum: And that’s it. And even in the beginning, even sending kids to school, and I know we’ve all had an effect with the school. We didn’t know if we should send our kids there. I went to a town hall meeting in the school and I started to get rashes. I sent my kids two days and they got sick. My daughter complained she was having issues and feeling dizzy and her head hurt. And then my son kept saying his stomach hurt really bad. So at that point I had to pull them out of school, and now we do online school. It’s just been crazy.

And the school’s not acknowledging it. The EPA’s… They’re not communicating at all about anything. There’s a little newsletter that goes out, but we’re not getting any kind of answers. And even with what they said with the chickens, now we just heard two chickens aren’t producing properly. And that’s something that the EPA should really be looking into, because that’s their livelihood. That’s what they do, that’s what they consume, that was something that we could do where we live, and not many people have that option, but we can, so we choose to. And if that’s decreasing, what’s really going on with our health that we’re not seeing yet?

Kayla Miller: I had three chickens and three rabbits die two days after the derailment, all within 24 hours of each other. They literally dropped dead. I also had two chickens that were having neurological symptoms that ended up… I had to take down.

And they say that it’s just a coincidence. All of my animals are well taken care of and healthy, and to have six animals within 24 hours of each other, two days after the derailment die, come on, give me a break. And they’re telling us this is all in our heads. My stepdaughter, who was living with me at the time, has since moved out because of all of this. Because every time she would come outside here, she would break out in hives all over her body. Every single time she would come outside. My kid’s stepdad –

Ashley McCollum: My daughter couldn’t handle it either. She’s with her dad now.

Kayla Miller: Yeah, my kids have had diarrhea, breathing problems, respiratory problems. And like I said, it’s a revolving door. When one gets better, the next one’s sick. And it seems like when we spend more time up in town, because I have family that lives up there, we get headaches, we get diarrhea the next day. And even when we’re here, I notice if they’re outside playing a whole bunch, if one of them’s out more than the other, guess what? In a day they’re going to be sick. It’s almost become like clockwork at this point.

Maximillian Alvarez: Again, gaslighting doesn’t even begin to cover what you’re going through. But when you’re seeing it, you’re feeling it, you’re seeing it in your kids, you’re seeing your neighbors, and everyone’s telling you, no, no, it’s fine. It’s all in your head. It’s like, motherfucker, no, it’s not! – Pardon my French – But like, what are you talking about? This is insane.

Kayla Miller: You’re going to sit here and tell me that my two-year-old, it’s in his head? Because he knows what’s going on. Give me a break.

Maximillian Alvarez: Give me a break. So I want to be clear that I want us to finish off by… Y’all have mentioned how you, amidst this chaos and this tragedy, as a community, y’all have banded together, and you have been providing each other with the essential support, the mutual aid, the information that you need and you’re not getting from the sources that are supposed to be supplying it. So I want to finish off by talking about that and talking about what everyone listening around the country and beyond can do to support y’all.

But I guess before we get there – I know we’ve covered this in bits and pieces in the conversation so far, so please don’t feel like you have to retread the same territory – But I know folks have a lot of questions about what the hell has been going on the past three months. Y’all have mentioned those town halls, and we were watching from afar. The first ones that Norfolk Southern didn’t even bother to show up to because they feared for their safety

Could you give us a sense, from your vantage points, of what has happened in those three months? What are you experiencing? What are you seeing your neighbors experience? What does the cleanup look like? What are they telling you in terms of what’s available to you if you want to move or if you want to test your water, your soil? There’s a lot of those details that I imagine folks listening to this don’t have. So anything that you want to say to fill in for people, what has been happening or not happening for you and your neighbors in the three months since the derailment?

Ashley McCollum: Well, from the beginning they started doing air testing and they put up air testers outside. They were testing in homes, but they wanted us to sign an access agreement, which was very odd in the wording and allowed a lot more people than those who were there to test access to my property inside and outside. I wasn’t comfortable with it. A lot more people had the testing done. The testing was so vague. It would say VOC, but we all know if you look up what a VOC is, that is a range of chemicals.

So there’s a lot that goes into it with the way the testing’s being done, with how we’re getting the testing. If the testing’s even there. I’ve done my own independent air testing, I have results for that. Some wipe tests. We’ve had other scientists or people come in and do testing for us. But without that, we really wouldn’t have the exact answers. And it’s definitely coming up different from what the EPA CTAC, Norfolk, anyone that they have testing is coming back to us saying. I mean, it’s kind of alarming. And now the air testing is no longer available. But we’re still getting lodging provided by Norfolk Southern, lodging and food, but it’s very specific. It’s to the person that they choose, okay, well, we’ll pay for your groceries for this family, we won’t do it for that family. We’ll let you sit in here and argue with us and belittle you, sometimes laugh at you with your receipts.

I mean, to get a hotel is hard now because everything is booking up. They rent out things. Online, hotels, when someone’s going to travel over here, they book a hotel online, so they have no power over what’s being booked and what’s not. So we might not have anywhere to go, even if they’re paying for it.

I own my home, but I don’t want to go back. I don’t feel safe. If I can’t be in my house for more than a half an hour without feeling sick and having my teeth hurt and my mouth go numb and severe headaches, I couldn’t possibly live there. And the most they’re giving us is lodging, or some people they’re giving them rent. And it’s really not enough, because when they’re done giving this, where do we go?

It’s not okay how they’re doing this. And if they’re not going to offer testing after they’re done disrupting the soil and they think that it’s okay for us to be in a hotel, it doesn’t make any sense. So we can’t be in the area while they’re disrupting the dirt. But we can easily go back in without any more testing to say our home is safe. And that’s even what happened in the beginning. They let everyone go home before any testing was conducted.

Kayla Miller: And my situation’s a little bit different cause I’m a little further out. For us in Negley, number one, we are downhill, downstream, downwind from all of this. So it’s poured down into here. And we’re obviously outside the one mile. Like I said, I’m three and a half miles.

Since I live close to the creek, they did come down and I’m in zone two for my well to be tested. But not all of Negley has been able to be tested. So like she said, they’re picking and choosing. No soil testing down here at all. So like I said, they’ll test our wells, but they won’t test our soil. We don’t have public water down here. So we’re on our own. Filtration systems are expensive.

The biggest thing right now – And I know this is my side of things – I’m on the donations committee for the Unity Council because of the stuff that I’m involved in. But I’m involved with donating supplies and stuff that we need. And the biggest thing, like I said, is water. Because we don’t know… Even though they are testing and these wells are supposedly coming back negative for everything, I can’t even say that they’re coming back negative, because they’re not. They’re admitting that these chemicals are in people’s wells, but they’re under their threshold. The problem with that is these chemicals are bioaccumulative, so over time it’s going to get worse. So it’s literally a matter of when will my well not be okay anymore? And they’re also bioaccumulative in your body. So even if there is a low level, you’re still ingesting that. But they’re not letting us bring water in, and it’s hard to find.

And like I said, I’m involved with a non-profit, Soup Mama Official. If anybody that’s listening wants to donate or lend a hand any way they can, we are on every platform, basically. I am their social media director. So you’ll be talking directly with me unless you email, then you will be talking to our president. But anyway, yeah, if anybody wants to help, please by all means go on there. Any little bit helps. Just trying to get water. And we’ve also been trying to focus on food as well, because like we were saying earlier, we’re not putting gardens in this year. We’re not raising meat animals. So that’s going to be a big expense that we haven’t had to deal with in the past.

So our biggest focus, like I said, is food, water, and trying to make sure that this doesn’t go away. Keep us on your minds, talk to anybody that you can, keep the situation going, because as soon as we stop getting attention, it’s going to be swept under the rug and we’re going to be screwed. Bottom line, we’re going to be screwed. Because when this stops being talked about, nobody’s going to care anymore to hear us.

Christina Siceloff: So in PA, there’s not really been, for my area, there’s been one soil sample done in my entire township. And a lot of the soil sampling that was initially done in PA and water and air sampling was up in Darlington, in the one- to two-mile radius that they set up. But down where I’m at, the DEP said they would not check our water. The Department of Agriculture will not check our soil. And for three months, I pushed for somebody to come and check my water just so I would have a baseline to go by. I’m not real far from Kayla, and so the creeks do run down my way as well. Eventually the water will be contaminated.

Last week I was talking to a guy from the EPA who had told me that before they leave this area, we need to put a demand out there that we have a water testing program put in place for our entire area for the next couple decades, because it’s going to be a problem.

So I think, like Kayla said, that we do really need donations for water. Some people as well, well, many people as well, need to be relocated. And there’s a group that is helping with donations for that as well. They have a GoFundMe and a GiveSendGo, and it’s East Palestine Off The Rails! And it’s through a doctor who is in town. They’ve been really great with helping with donations. They just helped one lady get out of town. With every $10,000 that they get, they’re helping somebody relocate. And so any kind of donation for them really helps as well. And one thing, though, is we do really need water.

And I think another way that people could help is also by reaching out to our governments here and pushing them to do testing that’s not just the EPA and the DEP, but letting independent testers come in and test for us as well.

Maximillian Alvarez: And I assure listeners that we will link to all of these sources that you’re hearing about, we’ll link to Soup Mama Official, East Palestine Off The Rails! so on and so forth. So if you want to learn more about those, please check out the links in the notes to this episode.

And one other bit of information to make sure that we get on the recording for everyone listening, news did break late last month, or maybe it was actually in March, late March, that the Department of Justice is suing Norfolk Southern over the East Palestine derailment.

I will link to this article as well in the show notes. But in a piece published by Politico on March 31 by Matt Berg, Matt writes, The Department of Justice is suing Norfolk Southern over its February 3rd train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last month, that spewed toxic materials and spawned weeks of furor over the Biden administration’s response. In the lawsuit unveiled Thursday, federal prosecutors accused the company of unlawfully polluting waterways with oil and hazardous substances from the derailed trains. The DOJ is seeking injunctive relief, cost recovery, and civil penalties to ensure it pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup,’ according to the lawsuit. It does not accuse Norfolk Southern of negligence. As a result of this incident, hazardous materials vented into the air and spilled into the ground, these substances contaminated local waterways and flowed miles downstream,’ the prosecutors wrote in the suit.

Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said the company was, working with urgency, at the direction of the US EPA,’ at whose request DOJ brought the lawsuit on, cleaning up the site, assisting residents whose lives were impacted by the derailment, and investing in the future of East Palestine and the surrounding areas.’ That remains our focus and we’ll keep working until we make it right,’ Spielmaker added, repeating a refrain that Alan Shaw, the railroad’s CEO, has said many times in his recent appearances before Congress, in which he’s apologized for the derailment.”

So I’m led to believe that part of this commitment that Norfolk Southern has made to the people of East Palestine is putting up a goddamn park or something somewhere [laughs]. Is that right? Isn’t that right?

Kayla Miller: He’s buying prom flowers and giving scholarships out, because that’s nice and all, but that’s fixing the problem. And if I hear him say he’s going to make it right one more time, I swear I’m going to throw the next piece of technology I have in my hand.

Maximillian Alvarez: Well, again, like I said, I’m amazed that you aren’t doing more than that. And so I just wanted to give that update for folks, because that is happening too. But yeah, I think as y’all have rightly pointed out, there are so many parties that have failed you all here in your communities. And I think one of the really, really effed up consequences of this that is trickling out to all of us who are watching is how connected the government agencies and Norfolk Southern are, to the point where no one trusts any of them.

And so when you feel like the EPA is taking directions from a billion dollar company that’s trying to cover its ass for what it did to this community and what it’s been doing to its railroad workers to increase the likelihood that catastrophes like this would happen in communities like East Palestine. When the government and the officials that we elect and we expect to serve us are showing that they’re just toeing the line of these companies and vice versa, and we can’t get the answers we need, who do you turn to there? That is a really, really distressing situation. And I don’t think people in government really understand how much damage they are doing. Or maybe they do, maybe they do, and maybe they’re just all crooked pieces of shit. I don’t know. Again, this is just such a dire situation that I can’t hardly wrap my head around it.

But on the very light glimmer of a silver lining here is that amidst all of this tragedy, amidst all of this chaos, and amidst this catastrophic failure of the people of East Palestine and the surrounding area, you all have come together as a community. You all found each other. You all are doing your best to support one another and give each other that aid that you so desperately need but aren’t getting elsewhere. So I wanted to ask if you all could say a little more about that. By way of rounding us out, how y’all came together, what that community support has meant for you all and the other folks who are involved in it. And if there are other things beyond what you already said about what people can do to support y’all.

Ashley McCollum: I would like to say Unity Council is something that we formed. Jamie was the main person that really got it together. We all spoke with her, gave her our stories, and it started snowballing into this big group. And that was another question you asked, about the meetings and everything. Jamie and I put together a meeting with the mayor and EPA member, and that really got people questioning things and asking more questions, and even brought up questions that stumped the EPA, or they said that, no, you’re right, that was wrong what we did. So that got us even more involved and more people coming to us and really making our group a lot bigger.

We just had a meeting yesterday, and we had Scott Smith, he’s been testing water filters in our homes, soil, anything he can test he is trying to test and get information out there. We have doctors helping us like Dr. Chai, like Christina said, these people have been avid and they’ve really been coming to our group.

With Unity Council, we’re going to be doing a lot more, making it a lot more accessible to other people. We do have a Facebook group. We’re trying to keep the community together and not let anyone feel left out and giving the community a voice and letting them speak to the people they need to speak to or bring up these things that are not being addressed. There’s still so many concerns and nothing’s being answered, but we’re still not going to give up because we at least made a little bit of a ripple. So that’s enough. We’re going to keep going and keep going. I did encourage a lot of people to make independent GoFundMes for their families, because at the beginning we had a lot of pop-up foundations or people saying that they’re raising money for citizens of East Palestine, until it got to a substantial amount of money raised and it didn’t go to anyone.

So I started telling everyone, put on there EP or East Palestine and really tell your story. So then that way these people know exactly who they’re funding, where it’s going to, you can keep them updated on your stories. So we keep growing with this, and hopefully our Unity Council does do bigger things, and we plan on doing it.

Kayla Miller: As far as our community goes, down here in Negley, we’ve always been a very, very close-knit community to begin with. But I will say through this, I’ve had just about everybody tell me, they’re like, you’re the face of Negley, which is one of the reasons why I was asked to be on the Unity Council to represent our town. I’ve had them say, if we had a mayor, we’d vote for you. And that’s just because I won’t shut my mouth. I won’t give up. This is my kids’ lives and the other kids in our community, it’s messing with their lives. I don’t care about me. I care about them and their future.

But yeah, I’ve met so many people that I knew about but never actually met them, or I’ve gotten closer with people that I was just acquaintances with. And I’ve had volunteers, whenever we do our donation drops down here, we have a full semi come in and unload. And every single time I have called, I have had an army behind me. And that is an amazing thing. I have been so proud of my community and my town through all of this because we really have handled ourselves well and conducted ourselves well.

I helped organize our town hall down here because nobody was doing it. So I stepped up, went to the trustee meetings, started talking to officials, and like she said, snowballed from there. And we got a town hall together. We got every single representative here. They said it was the nicest town hall that they had been to because we conducted ourselves properly. It was very much policed that we didn’t do the name calling. We really wanted answers. We genuinely wanted answers. And even in the end of it, like they said, it was like the nicest one they had been to. We still didn’t get our answers.

So now people have been talking about wanting to do another one. And I’m hesitant because I don’t know if it’ll be conducted so well this time, because people, they’re getting fed up, is what it comes down to. But yeah, our community has become even more close-knit. Every single time I’ve called, I have an army behind me, and it’s been amazing. I’ve had people give me gifts thanking me, and that means a lot. It means more than you would think it really would. But it means the world. It keeps you going, because there’s days where I just want to give up. It’s like we’re getting nowhere, no answers. This is, it is what it is. But then little things like that happen and it keeps you going.

Christina Siceloff: My area, Jamie had reached out to me at one point in PA because I’d made some comment on social media about Pennsylvanians needing help as well. And nobody was doing anything here. Nobody was stepping up. And I’m usually a quiet and shy person. But after waiting so long, it was like, I think a month and a half I was waiting for somebody to step up, because sometimes it’s hard to do things with being a single mom. And so I waited, and nobody else was stepping up. And I said, you know what? I’m not going to sit here and watch my kid and everybody else’s kid be left behind and die.

And so when Jamie reached out to me, she came up with the idea to get in touch with other community members around my area, because where I’m at, it’s a mostly wooded area and people live far apart from each other. So we decided that we would get a person from each of the surrounding communities in PA to East Palestine. And I was watching people’s comments on social media of, well, we need to do something to help our future generations. And I reached out to another lady who I saw she had three kids. And I was like, if you’re a mother, you’re going to fight for your children.

And so she joined the Unity Council. And then another lady, we reached out to her through comments that she had made on social media, and we all got together through that. And then the Unity Council, we’ve been sucked into it. Being in PA with just four people in our group, you don’t have a power in numbers. So we went and joined the Unity Council so that we would be stronger, because we can’t let Pennsylvania be left behind either. Because the plume went into PA. These chemicals, they didn’t decide to stop at the border like Norfolk Southern and the EPA think that they did. So we got involved with talking to each other.

And then I think that we’ve also developed a community in the Unity Council with everyone in East Palestine and from the surrounding areas. And I feel like we’re going to end up being stronger than what people think that we are. Even though we’re just a little community, we’re strong.

Kayla Miller: And to touch on that real quick, as far as the community thing goes, I also feel like on a bigger scale, like me personally – And I know multiple people aside from me – On TikTok, that is how I found out a lot of information. And like Christina was saying, I was not a very… To my friends, I’m a loud person, but when it comes to the public eye, I’ve always been in the background, do what I got to do, and it was what it was. But I made one video on TikTok about it, and it literally blew up. It had over 300 and some thousand views and I could not believe how many people didn’t even know what was going on. My video is the one that told them what was going on, and it has created a community on there. I gained thousands of followers for it.

So I think it’s helped us in our own communities, but it’s also helped us in our country as a whole. I’ve had a lot of people come and offer kind words and prayers, and it’s been a really nice thing to help with having that extra support system. So yeah, not only has it brought us together locally, but I think it’s also brought a lot of people together nationally as well.

Christina Siceloff: I agree with that as well.

Ashley McCollum: And for us being so calm and talking right now, there’s still things going on. We had just received a message that another person couldn’t be a part of a different interview. She had an emergency with her one-year-old, stopped breathing and had rashes. And everyone’s giving her prayers right now, and as calm as we’re talking, this stuff is just going on. It’s insane. Every hour we find out something new or something more traumatic.

Kayla Miller: It’s like I said, we’re going numb to it all. It’s almost like, okay, what next? What’s next? What else do they have for us?

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