AMAC Exclusive – By Shane Harris
More than 10 days after a train derailment in northeast Ohio sent plumes of toxic black smoke billowing into the sky and potentially poisoned the air and waterways for hundreds of miles in every direction, the country is still without answers as to what caused the disaster and the potential ecological fallout from it. The catastrophe, which has devastated the small community of East Palestine, marks the latest shameful failure from President Joe Biden and his woefully inept Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg.
Just after 9 pm on February 3, a Norfolk-Southern Railroad train carrying toxic chemicals crashed while passing through the village of East Palestine, releasing a flood of vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, ethylene glycol monobutyl ethers, and other highly dangerous chemicals. The working-class town has a population of about 5,000 and is situated roughly 20 miles south of Youngstown on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Residents were quickly ordered to evacuate as authorities scrambled to respond.
Nearly two weeks later, many questions remain unanswered, including whether it is truly safe for people to return to their homes. While the EPA and local authorities have said that water and air quality are no longer a concern, photos and videos have surfaced showing thousands of dead fish, frogs, and birds in the area around the crash. Many residents have continued to report a sore throat, burning eyes and nostrils, and an overwhelming smell of chemicals in the air, even as officials say there is no immediate health threat.
It is even unclear whether the water is safe to drink. The Marietta Times, citing “village officials,” said on Tuesday that the tap water in East Palestine is safe to consume. But just hours later, CNN issued a tweet stating that “officials say residents of East Palestine, Ohio should drink bottled water.”
Other social media users in the area have reported contaminated water near their homes, raising concerns that the chemicals from the train could be leaking into local waterways that feed into the Ohio River – a fresh water source for 10% of the country’s population. Those fears seemed to be confirmed on Monday when water quality workers found trace amounts of the chemicals from the crash in the Ohio River near Cincinnati.
One man who raises exotic pets and lives outside the evacuation zone told Newsweek that several of his animals died as a result of exposure to the toxins. Another woman found her chickens dead 10 miles from East Palestine days after the crash.
Conflicting reports have also emerged about the fires caused by the derailment. While a New York Times story published on Tuesday suggested that the derailment itself ignited the burn, an NPR story from February 6 described the fire as a “controlled explosion,” with another local news story citing railroad officials saying that they purposely ignited the chemicals “to keep the tanker cars from exploding on their own.”
Thus far, neither Norfolk-Southern representatives nor government officials have provided any explanation as to why purposely lighting the chemicals on fire, sending clouds of toxic black smoke into the atmosphere for multiple days, was the best alternative. One longtime hazmat technician provided his own analysis: “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
Throughout this ordeal, Biden and the ever-elusive Buttigieg have been nowhere to be found. While Biden has repeatedly touted the “Junk Fee Prevention Act” to save money on concert tickets and falsely accused Republicans of wanting to cut Social Security, he has made virtually no mention of the ecological disaster currently destroying the lives of thousands of families in the Midwest – a region Biden claims to care deeply about. At her press conference on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre refused to say anything other than that Biden was “monitoring” the situation, offering no insight as to what the EPA or other federal agencies had actually learned about the crash.
For Buttigieg, the train derailment marks at least the fourth transportation-related disaster to occur under his watch. Just like during the supply chain gridlock and FAA debacle, Buttigieg was missing in action, failing to mention the disaster at all until more than a week had passed. In that time, the Transportation Secretary did, however, find time to crack a joke about the Chinese spy balloon and lament the number of white male construction workers.
Buttigieg finally somewhat addressed the incident on Monday, issuing a tweet saying that he is “concerned about the impacts” of the derailment and “it’s important that families have access to useful & accurate information.” But those well-wishes are likely of little comfort to the millions of Americans potentially affected by the crash who are still in the dark.
Ohio Senator JD Vance slammed both Biden and Buttigieg in an appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight on Monday, saying, “We are ruled by unserious people who are worried about fake problems instead of the real fact that our country is falling apart in some of the most important ways.” Vance referenced the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed last year, noting that the spending was focused on “environmental racism and other ridiculous things instead of fixing the problem that they were established to fix.”
There is also still no word yet on what, if any government action will be taken against Norfolk-Southern, which has thus far only announced a meager $1 million in compensation for what is looking to be the long-term destruction of an entire town. Allegations have swirled that the railroad – which is backed by investment giants like BlackRock, Vanguard, and JP Morgan – lobbied for cost-saving changes in safety regulations that made such derailments more likely. Still, no one from the Biden administration has said whether there will be any investigation into what caused the Ohio crash and a slew of other train derailments that have occurred in recent months.
Perhaps all of this should be unsurprising given Democrats’ well-established pattern of using a compliant media to simply ignore problems that they’d rather not address. The walls of government buildings have a long history of drowning out the cries for help from ordinary people – and in recent years the governing class has been particularly deaf to predominately white, working-class people in communities like East Palestine.
For now, it looks as if the men and women in Ohio and Pennsylvania whose lives have been upended are largely on their own.
Shane Harris is a writer and political consultant from Southwest Ohio. You can follow him on Twitter @Shane_Harris_.