Since a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in Ohio nearly two
weeks ago, residents have feared for their safety. A controlled burn of
the toxic materials has filled the air and covered surface waters and soil
with chemicals. Dead fish have floated in nearby creeks, and an unnerving
aroma has lingered in the air.
But for many commentators from across the political spectrum, the
speculation has gone far beyond known facts. Right-wing commentators have
been particularly critical, using the crisis to sow distrust about
government agencies and suggest that the damage could be irreparable.
On social media like Twitter and Telegram, commentators have called the
situation the “largest environmental disaster in history” or simply
“Chernobyl 2.0,” invoking the 1986 nuclear disaster. They warned, without
evidence, that vital water reservoirs serving states downriver could be
badly contaminated. And they suggested that the authorities, railroad
companies and mainstream news media were purposefully obscuring the full
toll of the crisis.
“?Planned attack, cover-up or both?” asked “Conservative Daily Podcast,” a
program known for pushing far-right talking points.
Some of that speculation was echoed by mainstream outlets like Fox News,
which suggested the fallout could be catastrophic.
“You better punch in at 9 a.m., Ohio, even if it means inhaling mustard
gas on the way in,” said a sarcastic Jesse Watters, the Fox News host, on
Tuesday, over a title reading: “Ohio town looks like Chernobyl.”
The Environmental Protection Agency and state officials have acknowledged
that the situation in East Palestine, Ohio, is disastrous in many ways.
After the train derailed on Feb. 3, a fire broke out and about 50 of the
150 cars were derailed or damaged. Fearing an explosion, officials ordered
nearby residents to evacuate before conducting a controlled burn, which
released a toxic plume of smoke for several hours that was visible for
Since then, the E.P.A. has said air quality has returned to safe levels.
Residents have been allowed to return. A chemical odor lingers because
people can smell the contaminants even when they are far below hazardous
concentrations, according to the agency. Water testing found “no
indication of risk” to public water systems so far, the E.P.A. said,
though private wells should be tested. Utilities drawing from the Ohio
River were taking precautions, and at least one company said it had not
detected any changes in the water.
At a town-hall meeting on Wednesday, frustrated residents pressed
officials for assurances that the air and water were safe. Experts urged
caution as they assessed the long-term consequences, warning that airborne
contaminants can settle on surfaces, seep into wells and migrate through
cracks into basements and homes.
Yet influencers and right-wing commentators were quick to the draw with
conclusions of their own, theorizing about the extent of the damage and
the federal response, which they have said amounted to an extensive cover-
“It’s a really scary thing,” said Nick Sortor, a video journalist who has
covered the situation, on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the popular Fox News
show. “To think that the federal government cannot be trusted enough to
tell us whether or not it’s safe to go into an area like this.”
“Well, they forced the Covid vaccines on the country,” Mr. Carlson
replied, “so I think they can’t be trusted.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who oversees railroads, has
become a target of criticism for many conservatives. Mr. Carlson called
Mr. Buttigieg “flamboyantly incompetent” and said his actions were
uncaring “almost to the point of evil.”
Online, some nonscientists wrote elaborate analyses about the toxic
chemicals, speculating that the airborne concentration of vinyl chloride,
one of the chemicals being carried on the train, was dangerously high.
They rebuffed the E.P.A.’s assessment that the air was safe, concluding
instead that the area surrounding East Palestine was badly contaminated
“Mind you I am no chemist, but simply looking up what these compounds can
do is worrying,” wrote one user on the chat app Telegram in an analysis
claiming the toxins would have been safer if not burned. In the town
meeting on Wednesday, Trent R. Conaway, the mayor of East Palestine, said:
“There were two options: Either we blow it up, or it blows up itself.
There wasn’t a third.”
Local media reports described several environmental consequences from the
controlled burn, including that some fish were found dead in nearby creeks
and that some domesticated animals had fallen sick. An E.P.A.
representative said at the town meeting that the chemicals were lethal to
fish, not humans, and that the waterways were already repopulating with
But those reports quickly melded with unconfirmed, and far more severe,
reports of environmental harms extending far beyond the burn site.
“Dead fish and cattle being reported as far as 100 miles away from the
site,” wrote Stew Peters, a right-wing commentator, on Twitter, offering
no evidence. The tweet received more than 40 million views.
The belief in a cover-up has gained steam in the days since, as internet
users used the hashtag #OhioChernobyl to claim that national and local
media were ignoring the disaster, though all major news networks and
several local news organization devoted at least some coverage to the
Those claims were emboldened after a reporter for NewsNation, a cable
television news channel, was arrested while filming a report at a news
conference and charged with criminal trespassing and resisting arrest. The
charges were later dropped.
“How does a reporter get hit with ‘criminal trespass’?” asked Chris Cuomo,
the former CNN anchor, who hosts a show on NewsNation. “I’ll tell you how.
This is when people in power don’t want you around.”
Stuart A. Thompson is a reporter on the Technology desk covering
misinformation and disinformation. @stuartathompson