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The Political Appropriation of the Train Crash in East Palestine, Ohio

Democrats, Republicans, & the politics of tragedy

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished about a month ago 8 min read
Image; GeorgR (de)/Rail Transport in the US/2022 November

On February 3rd, a train operated by the company Norfolk Southern derailed near the village of East Palestine, Ohio. Authorities claimed that toxic materials had been released into the atmosphere (and would release even more themselves) and consequently ordered an evacuation.

Days later, the EPA published a four-page report saying that 20 of these cars were carrying hazardous materials such as vinyl chloride, butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether. The line often pulled from that report online is that these materials "have been and continue to be released to the air, surface soils, and surface waters," which sounds pretty terrifying without knowing much about the science behind the situation.

Almost immediately, a narrative started circulating online that the media wasn't talking about the spill in East Palestine. "Where is a statement from [the U.S. Department of Transportation] and [Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg] regarding the train derailment and subsequent ecological disaster in East Palestine, Ohio?" tweeted Nina Turner 10 days after the incident. "How can something like this happen, and federal officials remain silent?"

In a post-Flint Michigan world (a town that still is having water problems), it's not hard to imagine those in power negligently handling an environmental disaster. We are too familiar at this point with how governments can mess up. Whether we are talking about Democrats or Republicans, our government's response to environmental catastrophes, like in East Palestine, has been abysmal.

Yet when we examine the issue closely, it becomes easy to see that many actors are trying to take advantage of this disaster, including some bad-faith actors on the right.

The crash, how bad is it?

We know from reporting that, among other things, the substance vinyl chloride was purposefully released into the atmosphere via a controlled burn to allegedly prevent an explosion — hence the reason for the official evacuation order. Vinyl chloride is used in creating plastic polyvinyl chloride or PVC, and inhaling it has been known to cause dizziness, headaches, narcosis, and even death. It is a known carcinogen that can cause cancers such as leukemia and a rare form of liver cancer called hepatic angiosarcoma.

The extent of those symptoms depends very much on the concentration and scope of their release. However, it should be noted that a similar incident of vinyl chloride being released via train derailment occurred in Paulsboro, New Jersey. This emission of vinyl chloride caused some exposed to it to indicate they were experiencing health-related issues years later.

Presently, the response from government officials is to claim that the area is once again safe for people to return to East Palestine. The governors of Pennsylvania and Ohio have put an end to the evacuation order. Officials in Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, and other communities have claimed that their services will be unaffected. The EPA has announced that initial testing has not detected "anything above the action level."

Yet secondary indicators are causing people to be wary of these claims. There have been viral reports of dead fish and other animals. Journalist Prem Thakker interviewed East Palestine residents for the New Republic and painted a grim picture of pollution still impacting their quality of life, writing: "Many others TNR spoke with, in and outside the one-mile radius, reported similar symptoms: headaches, burning sensations, severe dehydration, and more. But the town's nearly 5,000 residents are left unsure about who qualifies for what support in the face of these ailments."

Both government and corporate responses to this disaster have been quite disorganized, with many residents not knowing who to ask for help and not being satisfied with the aid they receive. For example, Thakker notes that the company responsible for the train that crashed, Norfolk Southern, had offered residents $1,000 “inconvenience checks,” which had required stringent documentation to appeal for (not exactly something people can manage when they evacuate from their homes).

The company has also been accused of not properly safeguarding against soil and water contamination when they performed that initial control burn of vinyl chloride. The EPA has accused them of being potentially liable for this oversight. A report released several days ago states: "Areas of contaminated soil and free liquids were observed and potentially covered and/or filled during the reconstruction of the rail line including portions of the trench /burn pit that was used for the open burn off of vinyl chloride."

It's not that a control burn was unnecessary. As Thakker explains: "vinyl chloride and other compounds are explosive." However, from my perspective, it seems like a rush to call the situation "solved" led to them cutting some corners on remediation— allegedly.

Yet it's not just Norfolk Southern that deserves our ire. When it comes to blame, one will find that there is plenty to go around.

The appropriation of a disaster

Conservatives were quick to pounce on this tragedy, and because the Internet exists, many of them spread misinformation in the process. Disinformation researcher Caroline Orr compiled an excellent thread on how many falsely claimed that poisonous chemicals were leaking into the Mississippi River, using an outdated map in the process.

This whole mess first came to my attention when "health" (i.e., anti-vax) influencer Erin Elizabeth, who proudly conveys on her bio that the New York Times has labeled her a conspiracy theorist, shared a video on Twitter from Tiktoker and entrepreneur Nick Drom. Now the specifics of the Nick Drom video seem fine to me (I am not a scientist, so please consult one), but it was strange to see Elizabeth and many others share information like this when historically, conservatives have resisted environmental regulations for years and are often directly in the pocket of companies making hazardous materials like vinyl chloride. One would think that conservatives would be the last people to call attention to this disaster.

And yet many are touting this crash as a failure of the Biden administration and his neglect of Republican voters. As Tucker Carlson lamented on the crash: "…the Biden administration doesn't seem too concerned about it either way. Donald Trump got over 71% of the vote in the county in the last presidential election. That's not exactly the Democratic Party's core demographic."

Caroline Orr has theorized (and the Tucker quote above implies) that the angle many of them are going for is one of reverse racism. The Biden administration, they allege, is ignoring a predominantly Republican and implicitly left unsaid, white area. This narrative is about twisting a horrible tragedy into an easy-to-digest framework based on white entitlement and resentment.

It would be easy to spin this as simply more conservative culture war nonsense. However, it is worth noting that this entire incident was not only preventable, but that blame lies on both sides of the aisle. For years, Norfolk Southern and other rail industry donors lobbied to deregulate against the very safeguards that would have made this crash less likely, and they have had sympathies from both parties.

For example, in the wake of the Paulsboro crash we mentioned earlier, the Obama administration proposed a rule to increase the safety regulation for hazardous materials, only for it to be, according to the writers in the Lever, "narrowly focused on the transport of crude oil and exempting trains carrying many other combustible materials [like vinyl chloride]." In essence, passing a regulation that would not have prevented either the 2014 crash or the one that happened in East Palestine.

Several years later, the Trump administration rescinded a different Obama-era rule that, over a six-year period, would have implemented an electronic braking system that might have prevented this mess. It indeed would have been implemented already. The Biden administration still needs to reinstate this necessary rule, and as we near the end of his first term, railroad safety has yet to be a priority.

While the outright callousness of the Republican party is primarily responsible for the East Palestine derailment, we should not pretend like the behind-closed-doors indifference of the Democrats is acceptable. If people were honest with themselves, they would realize that this crash had bipartisan support.


As a left-leaning environmentalist, during disasters, I am inherently skeptical of reports from government and corporate actors alike. Traditionally there is hesitancy from those in power to downplay harm so they can avoid blame and future accountability. As Mary Pezzulu writes in Patheos:

“This always happens when there’s an environmental crisis in Appalachia and we’ve had some spectacular ones. These crises don’t happen because the people in Appalachia cause them. They happen because the United States government, both the Democrats and the Republicans, permit industries to do whatever they want, particularly in Appalachia which nobody but Appalachia cares about. The industries take advantage. It’s been going on for over a hundred years. It’s not more complicated than that.”

If we want to mitigate the damage of this and future environmental tragedies, we can't let this trend continue. We need regulations that protect the safety of all passengers, politicians who give a damn, and train infrastructure that isn't managed by negligent corporations (which pretty much includes all of them).

Until then, the next accident is not a matter of if but when.


About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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