A toxic train derailment in Ohio has become a political football. But what about the residents who fear for their health?
A huge, black plume of smoke rises above houses and farms… spewing toxic chemicals into the air. On the ground, the fiery wreckage of 149 train carriages.
This is East Palestine, a normally quiet town in rural Ohio with a population of just 4,700. Now, it’s the scene of a disaster that’s made headlines around the world.
[Clip: news montage]
When the train derailed in early February it was carrying things like frozen vegetables and alcohol, but it also had eleven carriages filled with huge quantities of potentially hazardous chemicals.
It turned into a fireball, and two days after the crash authorities decided to carry out a controlled burn to avoid a dangerous explosion.
The whole area was evacuated because that controlled burn released phosgene and hydrogen chloride – two highly toxic chemicals.
Five days after the derailment and three days after the controlled burn, residents were allowed to return home. They were told not to worry: that tests had shown the water and air to be safe, although they were urged to be cautious and use bottled water where possible.
But people in East Palestine… well, they aren’t convinced.
Since the controlled explosion, residents in East Palestine have complained about headaches, sore throats and itchy eyes. An estimated three and a half thousand fish died in local creeks because of chemicals in the water.
“I honestly feel that the Palestine… the police department, the fire department, all the first responders… they don’t have the answers to give us because I don’t think they know. They’re not getting the straight answers either.”East Palestine resident
That fear has been picked up and magnified online.
#OhioChernobyl trended on Twitter, a reference to the nuclear disaster that happened in the 1980s, and the real stories of local residents have become confused with unsubstantiated viral rumours – fuelling conspiracy theories about a government cover-up.
Here’s Tucker Carlson, speaking on his Fox News show.
“Well, they forced the Covid vaccines on the country so I think they can’t be trusted.”Tucker Carlson speaking on Fox News
East Palestine is a largely conservative, predominantly white area. And for right-wing groups and Republican politicians in particular, the derailment has become a proxy issue for the culture wars.
Here’s Charlie Kirk, the founder of the conservative youth organisation Turning Point USA, speaking earlier this month…
“Not a single member of the Biden regime would dare to go to this portion of Ohio and breathe in the air because they know it’s dangerous… It’s because the war on White people continues. Why would you care for the White-working class voters in eastern Ohio?”Charlie Kirk, speaking on The Charlie Kirk Show
Although government officials were at the site within hours, both President Biden and his transport secretary Pete Buttigieg have been criticised for failing to go there sooner.
In fact, Donald Trump beat them both, a point he seized upon during his trip to East Palestine…
“Resident: What’s the message to Joe Biden?Donald Trump speaking to East Palestine residents
Trump: Get over here.”
The Biden administration has pointed out that Republican lawmakers were responsible for rolling back safety regulations designed to prevent this type of crash.
And environmental groups have pointed out that a Trump-era rule allowed much more dangerous chemicals to be carried by rail with no extra safety regulations.
But what about the people in East Palestine?
“Tonight the Environmental Protection Agency has taken charge of the cleanup from East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment site and ordered Norfolk Southern Railway to pay for it.”News clip
“If the company fails to complete any action ordered by the EPA, the agency will immediately step in conduct the work ourselves and then force Norfolk Southern to pay triple in cost today.”News clip
East Palestine has now become a political football – and the lack of information about the situation has allowed conspiracies to grow.
The Biden administration has ramped up its response and the clean up has begun, but local residents are unimpressed – particularly with Norfolk Southern, the company responsible for the train that derailed.
Norfolk Southern recently pulled out of a meeting that was supposed to help clear up their worries, citing safety concerns.
“The combination of Norfolk Southern’s corporate green incompetence and lack of care for our residents is absolutely unacceptable to me.”News clip
In a statement sent to Tortoise, Alan H. Shaw, Norfolk Southern President and CEO, said he had listened to concerns from the community and appreciated the direct feedback. And as a result the company is “enhancing” its remediation plan.
It’s estimated that an environmental clean up operation could take years to complete.
We will stay here and we will continue to do what needs to be done.
This is so much bigger than in the water.
In the meantime, the Environment Protection Agency has opened a health clinic for worried residents. And local officials drank water from the area to show they were confident it’s safe.
[Clip: EPA officials drinking water]
But it’s going to be hard to win back trust.
This episode was written and mixed by me, Claudia Williams.