Ohio Train Derailment: The anatomy of a government, political, and media failure

One month after the train derailment and subsequent chemical spill in East Palestine, Ohio, residents are being diagnosed with chemical bronchitis, rashes, and other disturbing symptoms despite claims from environmental and health authorities that the region is safe.  Meanwhile, the Biden Administration and the media try to blame a President who hasn’t been in office for two years…

One month ago, a Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio after a ball bearing failed, setting one of the cars on fire for over ten miles before the incident.  The derailment spilled toxic chemicals into the surrounding area, including the Ohio River.  Shortly after, the government instituted a controlled burn of vinyl chloride, a substance known as a “volatile organic compound.”  The entire village was evacuated during the burn, which released toxic chemicals into the air including hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a chemical weapon used during World War I, and generated a plume of smoke that could be seen from space.  Less than a week later, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio state health authorities assured residents it was safe to return, but people immediately began reporting a range of health issues, a sharp chemical smell like chlorine, and dead wildlife in the area.  Over 3,000 fish have washed up on the Ohio River and surrounding waterways, and there were widespread reports of deceased livestock and other animals.  Senator J.D. Vance went to the river himself, and by simply stirring the water with a stick, released a multicolored streams of chemicals, as though the river was running with oily food coloring.  Some of this evidence was circumstantial, but it should have been enough to be obvious to everyone that something was clearly wrong, and maybe, just maybe it was too soon for residents to return.

Instead, the government at the federal, state, and local level doubled down on their insistence that East Palestine was perfectly safe and there was nothing at all for residents to worry about except to drink bottled water for a short period.  The EPA insisted that air monitoring throughout the community found no contaminants beyond normal levels, suggesting that any symptoms people were experiencing were unrelated without actually releasing the underlying air quality data until weeks later.  Here are a couple of examples, “U.S. EPA continues to conduct air monitoring throughout the East Palestine community. Air monitoring since the fire went out has not detected any levels of concern in the community that can be attributed to the incident at this time. For example, there have been some exceedances of PM2.5 screening values, but those are both upwind and downwind of the derailment site so likely had another cause,” and “U.S. EPA air monitoring did not detect chemical contaminants of concern in the hours following the controlled burn.  Residents in the area and tens of miles away may smell odors coming from the site. This is because the byproducts of the controlled burn have a low odor threshold. This means people may smell these contaminants at levels much lower than what is considered hazardous.”  Ohio government health officials just as breezily dismissed these concerns, and told residents to trust their betters, that is the real card carrying experts as Dr. Anthony Fauci might say.  Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff noted,  “Unfortunately, volatile organic compounds share with a host of other things the ability to cause very common symptoms at the lower level. So headache, eye irritation, nose irritation, etc. I think that we have to look at the measured facts. And the measured facts include the fact that the air sampling in that area really is not pointing toward an air source for this.”  He continued, “Anecdotes are challenging because they’re anecdotes…Everything that we’ve gathered thus far is really pointing toward very low measurements, if at all.”  Ultimately, he concluded, “Look, we have got very good data as it relates to the air quality, and I think people can feel very confident in that fact, coupled with the fact that there continues to be air monitoring…I think people should be confident that multiple agencies, both at the state and the national level, are very serious about this, are watching very closely and are [not] allowing any wiggle room when it comes to safety.”

Leadership in the Biden Administration showed little to no interest in the matter for more than two weeks.  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg waited more than a week to make any comment at all, and then claimed he was not planning to visit East Palestine because he was taking “personal time.”  “Where’s Pete Buttigieg? Where’s he at?” A resident asked East Palestine Mayor, Trent Conaway.  “I don’t know. Your guess is as good as me,” the mayor replied. “We need our citizens to feel safe in their own homes,” he added.  “I need help. I’m not ready for this. But I’m not leaving; I’m not going anywhere.”  Ohio Governor Mike DeWine could not find him either and it would be almost another two weeks before the Transportation Secretary arrived on the site of a transportation disaster.  Nor did the federal government’s emergency aid programs swing immediately into action.  Initially and rather incredibly, the Federal Emergency Management  Agency, FEMA, announced they would provide no aid whatsoever to the community.  “FEMA is on the frontlines when there is a hurricane or tornado,” an official said. “This situation is different,” they added without explaining why.  President Biden himself has not yet made a visit, has no plans to visit, bizarrely said he might have met someone on Zoom, and could not remember if he spoke to the mayor because he spoke to a lot of people.  “At this point, I’m not. I did a whole video, I mean, um, what the hell, on…” the President said, clearly at a loss for words.  “Zoom?” a reporter interjected.  “Zoom! All I can think of every time I think of Zoom is that song in my generation, ‘Who’s Zooming who?” Instead of working the problem, his Administration has been busy looking for someone else to blame and, for a time, it appeared they found it in former President Trump, the ever present boogeyman for Democrats and the broader establishment including the media.  On February 14, Newsweek jumped in the breach asking, “Is Donald Trump to Blame for Ohio Train Derailment?”  They cited a former Federal Rail Administration official, Steven Ditmeyer who claimed exactly that, saying the “severity” of the accident likely would have been reduced if the train had been equipped with Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Brakes.  Apparently, President Trump had rolled back a rule initiated under former President Barack Obama that mandated those brakes on certain types of trains, more on that in a moment. 

Meanwhile, this accusation was all President Biden and an administration that had completely failed to respond in any meaningful way needed to deny any responsibility.  By February 16, before he’d even been to East Palestine yet, Secretary Buttigieg was blaming Trump.  “In the wake of the East Palestine derailment and its impact on hundreds of residents, we’re seeing lots of newfound or renewed (and welcome) interest in our work on rail safety, so I wanted to share more about what we’ve been doing in this area,” he tweeted.  The problem, in his mind, was, “We’re constrained by law on some areas of rail regulation (like the braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015), but we are using the powers we do have to keep people safe.”  Other administration officials were happy to pick up on this meme, and the media was happy to promote it.  Less than a week later, USA Today headlined an article “White House blames Trump administration and Republicans over East Palestine, Ohio spill.”  They began by uncritically regurgitating what the White House told them because politicians never lie under these circumstances.  “The White House is firing back at Republicans following the toxic East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, blaming the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress for undoing Obama-era rail safety measures designed to avert such disasters.”  They referred to the (completely false) pushback as an “aggressive rebuttal” and quoted White House Spokesman Andy Bates, as if he could be relied on as a neutral arbiter.  “Congressional Republicans and former Trump Administration officials owe East Palestine an apology for selling them out to rail industry lobbyists when they dismantled Obama-Biden rail safety protections as well as EPA powers to rapidly contain spills.”  They proceeded to cite a supposed litany of things Republicans did, again fed to them by the White House, that caused the disaster.  “Among safety rollbacks cited by the White House, the Trump administration withdrew a 2015 proposal to require advanced braking systems on trains carrying highly flammable materials, ended regular safety audits of railroads and scrapped a proposal to require at least two crew members on freight trains.”

It wasn’t until the fifth paragraph that USA Today decided anything resembling the truth was important:  The regulation regarding these so-called advanced brakes wouldn’t have even applied to this train, and no one has any idea if any of these other measures would’ve had any impact.  The current information suggests they would not.  “Jennifer Homendy, who chairs the National Transportation Safety Board, said the brake rule would not have prevented the East Palestine derailment because it was proposed for ‘high-hazard flammable’ trains carrying 20 or more loaded tank cars. The train that derailed did not meet that threshold.”  This was further fact checked by The Washington Post, not exactly a Trump-friendly outlet.  Glen Kessler found, “From our analysis, none of the regulatory changes made during the Trump administration at this point can be cited as contributing to the accident.”  “So far, Trump’s rollback of regulations can’t be blamed for Ohio train wreck,” he declared right in the headline.  For its part, USA Today didn’t seem all that concerned about facts and evidence.  Instead, they continued blithely ahead, happy to accept what the administration says was true.  They cited a 2021 letter signed by “20 Republican senators in support of waivers backed by the rail lobby to allow automated inspections of track safety instead of human inspections,” as if that had anything to do with this accident, much less whether these automated inspections might actually be superior.  They mentioned a proposal, not an actual law or regulation, from House Republicans to reduce the EPA’s budget, which has precisely nothing to do with anything happening in Ohio.  Then, they closed by once again uncritically citing Mr. Bates, saying Republicans “laid the groundwork” to “tear up requirements” and to “defund our ability to protect drinking water.”  Mr. Bates, of course, has a demand in mind as well because no crisis can go to waste.  Pay no attention to the steady stream of lies and failure, just do what they want.  “There is only one way they can prove that they are finally disowning their long history of giveaways to rail industry management at the expense of communities like East Palestine: work across the aisle with us to put Obama-Biden protections back in place and go further, including with higher fines for rail pollution and properly equipping the EPA.”

Ironically, there is an argument that the much-maligned former President is the person most responsible for bringing attention to the plight of the residents and changing the behavior of the Administration.  On February 18, he sent an email to his supporters, “Biden and FEMA said they would not be sending federal aid to East Palestine.”  “As soon as I announced that I’m going, he announced a team will go,” President Trump continued. “Hopefully he will also be there. This is good news because we got them to ‘move.’ The people of East Palestine need help. I’ll see you on Wednesday!”  FEMA rapidly reversed course, promising aid.  President Trump visited East Palestine on February 22 the following week, distributing water and other supplies and purchasing meals.  Secretary Buttigieg was there the following day, though he managed to take an unseemly shot at the former President while on the ground in the middle of a disaster his agency is responsible for, and the media finally started covering the fallout and the symptoms residents continue to suffer.  NBC acknowledged this reality on February 25, writing “Residents near Ohio train derailment diagnosed with ailments associated with chemical exposure, including bronchitis.”  Incredibly, they still managed to sneak in some skepticism, as if these residents were making it up, noting that “Medical professionals suspect that some people’s headaches, rashes and respiratory problems are related to the release of hazardous chemicals in East Palestine.”  You don’t say?  “Melissa Blake, who lives within a mile of the crash site in East Palestine, Ohio, said she started coughing up gray mucus and was struggling to breathe on Feb. 5, two days after the Norfolk Southern train derailed. That day she evacuated her home and also went to the emergency room, where she was diagnosed with ‘acute bronchitis due to chemical fumes,’ according to medical records reviewed by NBC News.”   “They gave me a breathing machine. They put me on oxygen. They gave me three types of steroids,” Ms. Blake said. “People ended up with rashes, nausea, vomiting, bloody nose, eye issues. A lot of coughing, wheezing,” explained Howard Yang, the general manager of a nearby manufacturing company.  “We sent a lot of workers to the hospital to get checked out and, sure enough, in most cases, it was a diagnosis of ‘chemical bronchitis.’ They were put on five different kinds of pills, including steroids. Some guys have to use inhalers. It’s pretty bad.”  This was followed with another disclaimer, “NBC News could not independently verify the workers’ diagnoses.”  “They’re complaining of burning to their lungs, nasal drainage, eyes burning, throat pain, unknown rashes that have started since they’ve been back to their homes,” reported Deborah Weese, a nurse practitioner at a local urgent care clinic.  Still, this was not enough because “it’s difficult for doctors to make direct links between these ailments and particular chemicals.”  “There’s no lab test. There’s no imaging test. It’s really just a clinical suspicion of what it could be. It’s certainly reasonable to say if you have a rash, dry skin or dry eyes, dry nose, that it could be related. There really isn’t a way to tell for sure, unfortunately,” explained Dr. James Kravec, the chief clinical officer for Mercy Health in Youngstown and Lorraine, Ohio.

This is embarrassingly ridiculous:  Unless all of these people and local medical professionals are lying and fabricating images of dead animals, for anyone to suggest that the cause of these sudden problems isn’t the aftermath of the derailment is almost clinically delusional.  Why else would dozens of residents of the same town suddenly come down with mysterious illnesses?  Of course, these were the very same people claiming absolute certainty over all things related to coronavirus, pushing the most draconian and ineffective policies in the history of the country, and yet couldn’t acknowledge the reality that virus originated in a city that just happened to have a virology lab working on these kinds of viruses.   Sadly, I am not surprised:  Everyone in a position of authority has completely and totally failed, and the cover up and blame shifting is likely just beginning, but don’t worry, the adults are back in charge.

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