On Feb. 3, a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed and caught fire near East Palestine, Ohio. Authorities, who temporarily evacuated the area and engaged in the “controlled release” of some of the chemicals on the train, now say the air is safe.
But some residents say they’re getting sick from lingering fumes, and the media environment surrounding the situation is getting heated. A reporter was dragged to the ground and arrested while trying to cover a briefing that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine was giving about the incident; leftist critics and Republicans alike are suggesting Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is to blame; Erin Brockovich is yelling at new Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance on Twitter; and online conspiracy theorists—including (deep sigh) a very famous one who represents Georgia in Congress—have caught hold of the story and begun to do what they do best. The word “Chernobyl” is getting thrown around. What’s going on?
What was this train and why did it catch on fire?
The train, operated by the Norfolk Southern company, was 153 cars long. At about 9 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 3, about 50 of its cars derailed, possibly because of a problem with an axle toward the front of the train. According to initial reports, 20 of the train’s cars were carrying hazardous materials, including four that contained the carcinogenic gas vinyl chloride, which is used to make the plastic known as PVC. The derailment caused a fire and at least one explosion. Some vinyl chloride was discharged immediately via an automatic “release device,” and more was discharged on Feb. 6 in a controlled burn to prevent a larger explosion. An estimated 1,500–2,000 local residents were evacuated, but were told they could return on Feb. 8.
Has anyone been hurt, killed, or made sick?
No one was injured during the derailment or while managing the subsequent fires, according to authorities, and an Environmental Protection Agency incident page has reported consistently that the agency’s air-quality monitoring has not detected the “volatile organic compounds” that were aboard the train in levels believed to be threatening to health. The EPA also says the agency has conducted nearly 400 in-home tests in conjunction with Norfolk Southern without observing any potentially harmful conditions. Residents in the area are reporting a strong chlorine-like smell, but the EPA’s page says some of the byproducts of the controlled burn can have a noticeable odor even at levels that are not dangerous.
On the other hand: Some residents say they’ve been feeling nauseous and getting headaches since returning home. Norfolk Southern has notified some households in the area that their well water may be at risk of contamination. The local TV station WKBN has reported that the EPA and outside experts are concerned that the company did not properly dispose of soil at the crash site. And fish are dying in area streams.
What’s the deal with the reporter who got arrested?
Correspondent Evan Lambert of NewsNation, the channel that used to be WGN, was pulled to the ground and arrested by police officers at a Feb. 8 press conference that DeWine was holding in a school gymnasium.
Is this evidence that government officials are trying to suppress coverage of the derailment?
It doesn’t appear to be. There were other members of the press at DeWine’s press conference, and Lambert wasn’t removed to keep DeWine from having to field questions. In fact, Lambert was on the opposite side of the gym from DeWine when he became involved in an argument with law enforcement officials who were upset that he was doing a live report while the governor was speaking. Lambert was told to leave when the argument escalated, then arrested when he declined to do so.
DeWine subsequently said that he did not authorize Lambert’s arrest and doesn’t have a problem with reporters doing live shots at his events. The Ohio attorney general’s office took over investigation of the incident and, on Wednesday, dismissed the charges that had been filed against Lambert for trespassing and resisting arrest.
More broadly, it’s true that national publications and cable news channels were slow to begin covering the story. But as this Twitter thread from a news director at the Cleveland TV station WEWS points out, local outlets have reported extensively on the crash and its aftermath.
OK, so—why is everyone yelling? Is the national media the problem, then? Are they ignoring an environmental catastrophe? Shouldn’t an enormous black explosion/cloud of toxic gas be a bigger story?
Polemical populists on both the right and left are suggesting there’s something sinister about the lack of national coverage of the crash, with the gist being that the elite corporate media is ignoring or suppressing the story to protect the prerogatives of fellow elites (including, but not limited to, Pete Buttigieg, train company shareholders, and others). This, it is being argued, is being done because elites care more about each other than the rural working-class individuals in East Palestine who will bear the brunt of any environmental fallout from the disaster. (Vance made this argument on Tucker Carlson’s show on Tuesday. For the record, Erin Brockovich, who remains an environmental activist, criticized Vance for taking so long to address the crash publicly.)
Some have compared the derailment to ecological and public-health disasters like Chernobyl and Bhopal, and described the decision to burn off the vinyl chloride in ominous terms:
It’s not clear what Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene means here, but she’s mad about it:
The Chinese government has helpfully created a hashtag:
Concern about the situation is justified: Vinyl chloride and some of the other materials involved are, indeed, hazardous. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to see photos of a giant black burn-off cloud and wonder if residents in the area are safe. Recent environmental disasters in Flint, Michigan, and elsewhere have undermined public trust in elected officials’ declarations about safety. And the complete list of what the train was carrying wasn’t released for several days after the crash.
What’s lacking, though, is evidence of widespread harm or danger to humans. Death tolls at Chernobyl and Bhopal were massive and immediate, while the reason that drinking water in Flint did so much harm is that it wasn’t being adequately monitored. In this case, both state and federal environmental agencies were on hand immediately to test the surrounding air and water. They haven’t found any of the substances that were on the train in amounts that are known to present a health risk to humans. (The fish fatalities appear to be limited to the immediate area around the crash. This is, of course, bad, but spilled substances can become diluted to a point of negligibility the farther they travel.)
Fine, but is Mayor Pete at fault for the crash itself? I am hearing online, on the Internet and World Wide Web, that he should have reinstated Obama-era rules about braking equipment on trains carrying hazardous materials.
Several leftist publications and writers have circulated the charge that the Biden administration and other governmental entities—particularly Secretary Buttigieg, who once worked for the efficiency-obsessed McKinsey consulting company—have gone soft on corner-cutting railroad companies. These charges have centered on the administration’s choice not to push for the reinstatement of an Obama-era regulation that mandated updated electronic braking systems on certain trains carrying hazardous flammable materials. That rule was repealed during the Trump administration.
Other industry observers, though, say this criticism is misguided because the train that derailed was not carrying enough flammable cargo to have been covered by the rule. (DeWine made a similar observation on Tuesday.) The derailment also appears to have been caused by an overheated axle and/or wheel under one particular car—see this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report about video footage from elsewhere on the track which appears to show the problem—rather than a speed or braking issue. (The National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary statement about the crash mentions an overheated wheel bearing but not anything about brakes.)
Which is not to suggest that underregulation is not a concern. Railroad Workers United, a labor group, has issued a detailed statement blaming “Precision Scheduled Railroading”—a term for industry cost-cutting that also came up last December when there was nearly a nationwide worker strike—for the accident and its severity. The statement asserts that the derailed train wasn’t inspected properly “due to car inspectors being laid-off” and “time allowed per car inspection being dramatically reduced by the industry.” (Buttigieg may also have invited criticism by not making any public comment on the crash until this Monday.)
The RWU statement also says that the train’s length and the order in which its cars were placed contributed to the violence of the collision. Trains have been getting longer in recent years. (Longer trains mean the same amount of material can be hauled with less manpower.) And arranging cars such that heavier cargo is toward the front of the train, which helps avoid a whiplash effect in the event of derailments, means downtime in which the cargo isn’t moving.
Incidentally, where is East Palestine?
South of Youngstown along the Pennsylvania–Ohio border, and not far from Pittsburgh and West Virginia.
Isn’t this the area of the country in which a mysterious train derailment occurs in the 2011 J.J. Abrams movie Super 8?
Isn’t it also the area of the country in which an “airborne toxic event” occurs because of a train crash in the Don DeLillo novel White Noise and its recent Netflix film adaptation?
The town in which White Noise takes place is fictional and is not depicted as being in any particular state. But as CNN notes, the novel does describes a rural, Rust Belt–like environment not far from a city that seems to be based on Pittsburgh—and at least one East Palestine family participated as extras in a nearby shoot for the Netflix movie in 2021.
Would you say that this life-art-life ouroboros is an example of the postmodern condition in which distressing “real life” circumstances are made even more upsetting by the “unreal” feeling of finding oneself in a situation more typically experienced vicariously via news or entertainment—as if one has been inserted into a movie or news broadcast, except that it lasts forever and cannot be “turned off” or otherwise escaped?
I would, and so would Maryville University English professor Jesse Kavadlo, who spoke to CNN:
“The terrible spill now is, of course, a coincidence. But it plays in our minds like life imitating art, which was imitating life, and on and on, because, as DeLillo suggests in ‘White Noise’ as well, we have unfortunately become too acquainted with the mediated language and enactment of disaster,” Kavadlo said.
Indeed, as much as we would like to ding Kavadlo for saying the words “the mediated language and enactment of disaster” to a cable news channel, he’s pretty much hit the nail on the head. East Palestine, in our fractured times, has become not just a disaster for the environment and for locals, but also a disaster as a news event: Not only can no one agree on who’s at fault, they can’t even agree on who’s at fault for not raising the question of who’s at fault more quickly.