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The Ohio Train Derailment Is a Disaster of Misinformation

Amid a local news void and right-wing scaremongering, bad science is spreading around the toxic train derailment in East Palestine.

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A black plume rises behind a home in East Palestine on Feb. 6, 2023.
A black plume rises behind a home in East Palestine on Feb. 6, 2023.
Photo: Gene J. Puskar (AP)

Stop me if you’ve heard this phrase in the past week: “No one is talking about the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.”

There’s a potential ecological disaster unfolding in Ohio, and residents are still searching for answers nearly two weeks after a train carrying toxic chemicals derailed near the town of East Palestine on the border between Ohio and Pennsylvania. Federal and local authorities, as well as the rail company, must be held responsible for the fallout of this incident. But the way the story is developing online is opening the door to scientific disinformation and fear-mongering, which is being wielded by right-wing figureheads who usually don’t really give a shit about environmental catastrophes.

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Let’s go over what’s on the official record. On February 3, a freight train owned by Norfolk Southern Railway derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, a town snuggled close to the Pennsylvania border; 38 cars went off the tracks, including 11 containing hazardous materials, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident. The NTSB has not yet issued an official report on the causes of the derailment, but it has identified a wheel bearing that appears to have overheated ahead of the accident.

After the derailment, a fire broke out, and clouds of dramatic black smoke rose over the town. In an effort to avoid an explosion, authorities and the company say they decided to vent and burn chemicals being carried on the train; this included cars carrying shipments of vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make plastics that can cause a variety of health impacts. Residents who had been evacuated after the derailment were allowed back on February 8. Authorities are monitoring air and water quality and say that the readings show levels safe for human exposure; while there have been no human fatalities or injuries related to the event, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimates that some 3,500 fish may be dead in the aftermath.

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“We are cleaning up the site in an environmentally responsible way, reimbursing residents affected by the derailment, and working with members of the community to identify what is needed to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement Wednesday.

Any environment reporter worth their salt knows that trusting a private company’s statement of how well a cleanup of their own mess is going is not a wise move. (Remember when the owners of the Colonial Pipeline initially said it had spilled 63,000 gallons of gasoline in North Carolina in August 2020, and then steadily increased that number to 1.4 million?) There are ways for journalistic outlets to independently verify measurements taken by companies and federal agencies of the levels of contaminants in air, soil, and water, and I have no doubt that serious investigative outlets on the ground are going about setting those up now. Talking to folks in the area about their experiences is another good step in piecing together the possible impacts of a disaster like this. Local outlets have been doing so, gathering reports on everything from reported pet deaths to residents’ health complaints. Connecting the dots between these claims and the science, however, takes time, staff, and money—something that isn’t exactly readily available at local outlets these days.

All three of Columbiana County’s remaining newspapers, according to state-level statistics from UNC’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, are owned by the same company; all have very small staffs and no dedicated environmental reporters. Meanwhile, both the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Akron Beacon Journal, the two major papers closest to East Palestine, have suffered layoffs and stagnant wages in recent years. One of the reasons the February 3 crash received delayed national attention is the dearth of local reporters on the ground to chase down stories and amplify them.

Making matters worse, mouthpieces in the federal government have been slow to respond to the disaster: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg issued a vague statement on Monday, 10 days after the initial accident, while President Joe Biden hasn’t said anything publicly at all. (Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, on Tuesday said that Biden had privately offered him help, but he didn’t feel the need to take the president up on his offer.)

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In recent days, news about the disaster has taken off on social media, boosted by the idea that “no one is talking about this” or that the media “isn’t covering this.” While the few local outlets that remain in the region have been tracking the disaster since the beginning, Media Matters did do an analysis of national cable news coverage between February 4 and 13, finding that several major cable news outlets did run some stories during that time—albeit a relatively scant amount of coverage compared to other issues.

Related story: Why TV Is So Bad at Covering Climate Change

Making matters worse, a reporter was arrested at a press conference on the disaster for allegedly disrupting the proceedings; while charges have since been dropped, the Columbus Dispatch reported that tensions at the event may have prompted the arrest. This incident, while seemingly isolated, has lent posts made on social media about East Palestine a frenzied, conspiratorial air: this is something they don’t want you to know about.

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That attitude has opened the door for a lot of misinformation. A tweet went viral this week warning people about water contamination from the accident, with an accompanying photo of what was insinuated to be a potential affected water area from the spill; turns out the photo was simply of the entire Ohio River basin area. That didn’t stop right-wing outlets and accounts from spreading misinformation implying that the entire river was contaminated. (It would take a hell of a lot of chemicals to contaminate the entirety of a river that is nearly 1,000 miles long, and experts have said that treatment centers along the river are well-equipped to handle any diluted contamination downstream.) Meanwhile, multiple accounts on TikTok from users with no scientific backgrounds or training have posted videos claiming that the controlled burn of the train crash is causing acid rain—something that has not been confirmed as happening by authorities or directly reported by any outlets on the ground. (Another thing that can cause acid rain, by the way, is fossil fuel combustion.)

This is all catnip for a specific breed of right-winger. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted about the “ecological disaster” and blamed media for focusing on “UFO’s” [sic], while Rep.Lauren Boebert declared on Tuesday that the “mainstream media has given up discussing East Palestine, Ohio.” Right-wing commentator Matt Walsh took a break from his weirdo obsession with trans people to talk about the derailment on his podcast. (“A train derailment sent toxic chemicals pouring into the air and water supply,” the summary states. “But the Biden Administration can’t put identity politics to the side for long enough to address this problem.” Okay, maybe less of a break than I thought.)

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“Biden never shuts up about trains, and he told us he was going to cure cancer,” Fox News host Jesse Waters said on Tuesday. “And now a train goes off the tracks, they light it on fire, it’s probably going to give everybody cancer and the president calls a lid. They have the whole Ohio River contaminated. These chemicals are flowing downstream to West Virginia, and we haven’t declared a national emergency. …Chemical catastrophe causing acid rain, dead fish.”

The conspiratorial nature of these claims—the idea that the mainstream media can’t be trusted to accurately report on this disaster, that the government is dragging its feet for a reason—combine, in the hands of these commenters, with a kind of anti-science rhetoric we’ve seen for years now in the vaccine conversation. There’s chemicals polluting your water, your soil, and your body—but the government doesn’t care enough to stop it. And this type of overblown fear-mongering can be a real detriment to residents in the area who are simply looking for reliable information about what they should do and what precautions they should take but are instead getting barraged by talking heads looking to make a buck off a disaster.

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To be clear, there are some very serious public health and environmental concerns associated with this disaster. The federal government should take more of a responsibility in helping East Palestine and its residents stay safe, and Norfolk Southern should absolutely be spending more than it currently is on fixing the mess it made. Train derailments and spills of toxic substances into waterways happen far more often than people realize—there were more than 1,000 train derailments just last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, while the government doesn’t even bother keeping track of oil spills into waterways that are less than hundreds of thousands of gallons. And while we still don’t know what exactly caused the accident, the Biden administration should take a hard look at some of the decisions it’s made recently with regards to rail safety and the unionization of workers.

But serious environmental evaluation takes time. It’s difficult to align our desire for rapid information with the idea that some crucial data could take weeks to monitor and verify in a responsible way. In the time it takes for the few remaining journalistic outlets near places like East Palestine to figure out if there are real stories to be chased down about government negligence or the health impacts of a disaster like this, right-wing scaremongers can monopolize bad science and overblown information to stoke fear.

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Speaking of which, to any of those right-wing scaremongers reading this: welcome! I’m glad you’ve decided to start caring about environmental disasters caused by corporate greed and government negligence. While you’re here, I’d encourage you to learn about the folks living among oil and gas facilities in Louisiana who have been suffering with cancer for decades or how traffic pollution is one of the leading causes of childhood asthma. After all, when we talk about corporate greed polluting our air and waterways, it’s important to include the fossil fuel industry—the companies you all love shilling for so much.