One month after a freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, sending tons of toxic chemicals into the air and prompting a temporary evacuation of the town, the fallout from the accident continues, both on the ground where local residents complain of lingering effects, and in Washington, where the Biden administration is under assault from conservatives over the federal response.
There were no injuries reported as a result of the accident, but residents of the area nearby are complaining of a mix of symptoms that may be related to chemical exposure, including headaches, breathing difficulties and skin rashes. This is despite assertions by state and federal environmental officials who say they have tested air and water samples and have found no evidence of harmful levels of dangerous chemicals.
Contractors have removed millions of gallons of toxic liquids and hundreds of tons of contaminated solid waste from the crash site and affected areas. However, some experts have questioned the thoroughness of the testing being conducted, and have warned that a larger and more extensive effort is necessary.
In Washington, Republicans have used the accident to lash out at the Biden administration and its officials, calling the federal response to the disaster insufficient, despite Ohio’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, saying publicly that he has “no complaints” about the federal response, and that his state is “getting the help we need.”
In a more conspiratorial vein, members of conservative media organizations, including popular Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have worked to inject the issue of race into the response to the disaster. Carlson and others have insinuated that the Biden administration would have mounted a stronger response if the disaster had occurred in a community of color, rather than in the majority-white East Palestine.
Timeline of events
Shortly before 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, a 150-car freight train operated by railway firm Norfolk Southern was passing through East Palestine when about 50 cars derailed in a fiery crash that officials have speculated was caused by an overheated brake bearing on a single car.
Of the dozens of train cars that went off the rails, 11 contained hazardous materials, including five that were carrying vinyl chloride, a highly combustible gas. Others carried a variety of toxic chemicals, some of which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health say may cause cancer in people exposed to them.
Officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency were on the ground in East Palestine within hours of the crash, the agency has said, with some 17 workers in place and performing air and water safety tests within the first 24 hours.
On Feb. 5, with state and federal agencies working to control the burning wreck, Governor DeWine ordered a mandatory evacuation of everyone within one mile of the site, warning that temperatures had risen drastically in one of the affected cars, making a catastrophic explosion possible.
The following day, the radius of the evacuation was expanded to two miles, as safety officials initiated a “controlled burn” of the vinyl chloride, meant to prevent an explosion. The result was an hours-long conflagration that sent plumes of dark black smoke into the air.
On Feb. 7, federal officials sampled the air and water in East Palestine and deemed it safe for residents to return to their homes. The mandatory evacuation order was lifted Feb. 9.
Norfolk Southern blamed
The train that crashed was owned and operated by Norfolk Southern, as were the tracks on which it was traveling when the crash occurred. In the weeks since, federal authorities, including the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, have blamed the company for the accident and said that it will be liable for cleanup and remediation costs.
“Let me be clear: Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a news release issued Feb. 21.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg released a letter to the company, accusing it of resisting tougher safety regulations in the past and demanding reforms. "In this context, Norfolk Southern and your industry must demonstrate that you will not seek to supercharge profits by resisting higher standards that could benefit the safety of workers and the safety of American communities, like East Palestine," he wrote.
For its part, the company has said that it is committed to cleaning up the town and compensating residents. In an open letter, Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw, who visited the crash site, said that his company was aware of residents’ concerns and would work to address them.
"I hear you, we hear you," Shaw said. "My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive."
In the weeks since the crash, residents of East Palestine have expressed frustration with government agencies and Norfolk Southern. At one point, representatives of the railroad refused to appear at a public meeting, citing unspecified safety concerns.
Local officials have complained about what they see as insufficient attention being paid to their town. East Palestine’s mayor, Trent Conaway, took particular exception to the fact that President Joe Biden had visited Ukraine in February without coming to his town first.
“That was the biggest slap in the face,” Conaway said in an appearance on Fox News. “That tells you right now he doesn’t care about us. He can send every agency he wants to, but I found out this morning that he was in Ukraine giving millions of dollars away to people over there and not to us … so I'm furious.”
Biden on Thursday told reporters that he has been working closely with “every official” in Ohio to respond to the crash. He seemed to suggest that he would eventually visit, saying, “I will be out there at some point.”
Professor Andrew J. Whelton, a professor of civil engineering and environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University, told VOA the residents have ample justification for their concerns about the health risks they face.
Whelton, who has consulted on numerous toxic spill cleanups, has personally traveled to East Palestine with a team to collect soil and water samples and said he experienced physical symptoms of toxic chemical exposure himself.
He said that in his view, federal and state officials have not communicated the severity of the danger facing the community there and appear not to have taken some basic preliminary analyses necessary to adequately clean things up.
"After you remove the acute health threats from the area, then the cleanup process will take years. But they haven't removed the acute health threats from the area," he said. "People are being exposed, still. That poses an immediate danger to life and safety."
While officials have allowed people to return to their homes, saying that air and water tests show no harmful levels of dangerous chemicals, he said, "There are definitely areas in Palestine where it is unsafe to be, and officials have failed to notify people about those unsafe places."
Republicans in Congress have used the disaster in East Palestine as fodder for attacks on the Biden administration, particularly Buttigieg.
Speaking on the Senate floor, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “Even amidst a catalog of crises on his watch, from this and other recent train derailments to the meltdown in air travel back during the holiday season, Secretary Buttigieg has seemed more interested in pursuing press coverage for woke initiatives and climate nonsense than in attending to the basic elements of his day job.”
However, the response of lawmakers has not been completely partisan. Democratic and Republican senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania, the two states most affected by the crash, came together with other lawmakers to jointly sponsor the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The bill would broaden safety requirements for rail transportation, particularly for trains carrying hazardous materials.
Next week, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will hold a hearing at which Norfolk Southern CEO Shaw is expected to testify, as are officials from the EPA and the state of Ohio.
The East Palestine disaster has provided material for commentators on the far right, who claim that there has been a conspiracy of silence from the mainstream media that has kept the disaster from receiving the level of attention it deserves. Many are focusing on the fact that East Palestine is a majority-white community, and attributing malevolent motives to the Biden administration.
Carlson, on his program, said, “East Palestine is overwhelmingly white, and it’s politically conservative … That shouldn’t be relevant but as you’re about to hear, it very much is.” He went on to suggest that the administration would have acted differently if the disaster had affected a community of color. “But it happened to the poor town of East Palestine, Ohio, whose people are forgotten, and in the view of the people who lead this country, forgettable.”
Charlie Kirk, leader of the conservative organization Turning Point USA, described what he characterized as insufficient media coverage of the disaster as part of a “war on white people.”
“If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated Black neighborhoods, this would be the No. 1 news story,” he said.
Prominent Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan, a former member of Congress who lost a run for the Senate last year, ridiculed the attempt to inject racial politics into the story. “You guys want to talk about a train accident as an attack on white people?” Ryan said of Republicans, in an interview with The Washington Post. “We want to talk about how we rebuild these communities.”