🧯 The facts of the East Palestine derailment

The train derailment in East Palestine, OH has the region on edge. This is understandable — the large scale of the disaster, apocalyptic controlled burn and existing environmental fears have residents worried about the effects. However, national and international social media accounts have flooded Twitter and Instagram with inaccurate information. For example, many accounts are sharing watershed maps encompassing thousands of square miles of uneven terrain. Others claim the media is “ignoring” the disaster which, put simply, is false on both local and national levels.

Today, we’ll try to cut through the alarmism and establish the facts of the incident. Given the ongoing nature of the derailment and release of pollutants, it may be weeks or months before the full effects can be understood.

🚂 What happened? On Feb. 3, a 150-car eastbound freight train derailed near East Palestine in Southeastern Ohio. 50 cars left the tracks, at least 20 of which contained hazardous chemicals. Teams from both Norfolk Southern railroad and state and national environmental agencies arrived. These groups decided a “controlled release” would be safer than allowing the wreck to smolder, sparing residents from the potential hazards of uncontrolled fire or flying shrapnel. Some say stronger oversight of rail companies could have mitigated the derailment, a topic that was part of last year’s threatened rail strike.

🛢 What was the train carrying? Vinyl chloride, for one. The poorly understood chemical is used to make PVC products and is highly volatile, turning into toxic chemicals including phosgene and hydrochloric acid when reacting with heat. In addition, further probing has discovered a litany of other potential carcinogens including ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate and isobutylene. The EPA has detected some of these contaminants in local water samples.

😷 Who’s been affected? Residents within a two-mile radius were urged to evacuate — this included around 20 PA residents. Though residents within that radius were allowed home Friday, and “hundreds of air samples showed no dangerous levels of toxins,” some did report odd smells and health impacts as far as 30 miles from the site. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has documented fish kills across 7.5 miles of streams, and some locals say their backyard chickens got sick or died after potential exposure. Municipalities downstream are monitoring their water supplies to ensure their water remains safe to drink, and some have taken further precautions.

📰 Who’s covering this? Have journalists been arrested? Every Pittsburgh-area outlet and numerous national outlets (see links above) including the New York Times, CNN and Wall Street Journal have covered the story. One journalist, however, was arrested preceding a press conference with OH Gov. Mike DeWine. Ohio National Guard and Highway Patrol officers allegedly confronted NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert over his volume before forcibly removing and jailing Lambert, which was caught on video. DeWine expressed disapproval of the arrest, and the state’s attorney general is now investigating.

🔜 What’s next? Norfolk Southern initially offered $25,000 in total compensation to area residents — however, many say this is not enough, and residents are preparing lawsuits to cover damages and potential medical costs. The rail company has also released a list of actions they have taken and are taking while state authorities monitor the scene. In the meantime, local reporters are covering the incident, taking photos and talking to residents. 

It’s still early days. Make sure to go at least one level deeper than a social media post! If you see someone saying “no one is reporting this!” or “this is Chernobyl 2.0,” check their sources. In environmental disasters like this, sticking to what we know concretely and holding authorities accountable is the best way to keep folks safe and avoid the next potential calamity.