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Ohio train derailment: Separating fact from fiction in the ‘toxic’ incident

Conspiracies spread quickly after train derailment

Josh Marcus
San Francisco
Sunday 19 February 2023 13:44 GMT
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Devastating aftermath of Ohio train derailment revealed in shocking drone footage

When a train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on 3 February, the truth began to look stranger than fiction.

A foreboding black cloud rose up from the accident site as officials performed a controlled burn. Thousands of fish in nearby waterways died. People couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the disaster and the Don DeLillo novel White Noise, about an Ohio family living through the aftermath of train derailment, which caused an “airborne toxic event.” Netflix recently adapted the book into a movie, and filmed scenes throughout the state.

To make matters worse, social media users and unscrupulous media figures broadcast conspiracies and exaggerated claims about the real Ohio derailment, leading to misinformation and speculation.

“This is kind of the ultimate event for driving conspiracy theories and various anti-government and anti-media sentiment,” Meghan Conroy, a US research fellow with the Atlantic Council, told WIRED. “There’s a lack of clarity about what’s happening on the ground in Ohio.”

Here’s what you need to know to separate fact from fiction about the East Palestine disaster.

Claims of a ‘false flag’ attack

Shortly after the train derailed, some on social media began speculating the accident was an intentional “false flag” attack, a term to describe a staged attack from one group meant to discredit another.

There’s no indication this is true whatsoever.

The immediate cause of the derailment, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s preliminary investigation, was a wheel bearing on one of the train’s cars becoming overheating and failing just before the crash.

Polluted waterways

Others, meanwhile, claimed contaminants leaking from the derailment site would soon leech into the water and make drinking water unsafe for millions and destroy US farms across the country.

Low levels of the chemical butyl acrylate have reached the Ohio River, but Patrick Ray, assistant professor of environmental engineering at the University of Cincinnati, told USA Today the levels of chemicals found in the Ohio River thus far pose no risk to humans.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s Director of Surface Water Tiffani Kavalec said earlier this week that drinking water will not be affected.

“The Ohio River is very large, and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” she said.

A multi-faceted failing

In Washington, politicians on all sides have sought to blame one another, or past presidential administrations for the crisis.

“We are concerned that the Trump administration rolled back some of the safety rules and some of the railroad safety and worker safety rules,” Ohio senator Sherrod Brown told The Independent, adding, “I mean, every chance Republicans get they weaken worker safety rules, they weaken and weaken environmental rules. They weaken consumer protection rules. So we want to know if we’ve got to fix that. But that doesn’t help East Palestine now.”

However, deeper factors, including labour issues, changing management practices, and weakening federal regulations have all created longer-term safety problems on US rail networks, The Independent has reported.

Ohio looks ‘like Chernobyl’

Some media commentators have framed the Ohio derailment as an unprecedented industrial accident, with Fox News host Jesse Watters saying East Palestine “looks like Chernobyl."

Unlike Chernobyl, local residents have been able to return to their homes since last week.

“Air quality samples in the area of the wreckage and in nearby residential neighborhoods have consistently showed readings at points below safety screening levels for contaminants of concern,” Ohio governor Mike DeWine said in a statement. “Based on this information, state and local health officials determined that it is now safe for community members to return to their residences.”

The Environmental Protection Agency visited East Palestine this week and conducted hundreds of home air tests and air monitoring samples, finding no unsafe quality issues following the derailment.

The Ohio EPA is currently testing surface and ground water.

What’s next?

Though some have made overblown characterisations about the derailment disaster, there are still some unanswered questions, including the long-term impact of the chemicals released on the surrounding environment.

“There’s just a lot of unknowns,” Donald S Holmstrom, former director of the Western Regional Office of the United States Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, told the New York Times this week.

Others are wondering how to stop future accidents from happening.

On Thursday, another train from Norfolk Southern Railway, the company operating the train which derailed in Ohio, went off the tracks in southeast Michigan.

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