The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How a small-town train derailment erupted into a culture battle

The East Palestine train accident is one of hundreds each year, but it’s become a significant political flashpoint

Three weeks after a derailed train spilled toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, residents still wonder if their homes are contaminated. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
16 min

Two weeks after a train carrying toxic chemicals went off the tracks in northeastern Ohio, President Biden sat in the Oval Office listening intently as his national security team briefed him on a different train almost 5,000 miles away, ultimately agreeing to take a clandestine rail trip into war-besieged Kyiv.

His decision to make the trip won praise globally, but it further inflamed already brewing domestic tensions over his handling of the train derailment in the small town of East Palestine.

Biden had already taken a number of behind-the-scenes steps on the derailment before that Feb. 17 meeting — calling governors, dispatching federal experts to the area and receiving briefings from top advisers. It was seen in the White House as a by-the-book response to a nonfatal event in a lightly populated area, one that would require federal help but had not ballooned into a larger disaster.

But by the time the president arrived in Kyiv on Feb. 20, the accident in East Palestine had surprised the White House — and many others — by erupting into the country’s latest cultural firefight over identity, polarization and the role of government. And by the time Biden returned to Washington, his aides were battling accusations that he had forsaken a small, predominantly White town as it struggled with the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe caused by a multibillion-dollar company.

Many of the accusations were made by Biden’s political adversaries, abetted by a spate of criticism on mainly right-wing social media accounts, not all of them accurate — including the charge that federal officials ignored the crash, when they sent personnel as they normally would. Still, three weeks after the disaster, it seems clear that the administration was caught off guard, unprepared for the possibility that the nonfatal crash would become a prism for the country’s political battles.

“In an environmental crisis, the optics matter,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written about the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. “There’s a lot of mistrust in the federal government, and there’s a lot of noise in our cluttered culture. So to break through that, you’ve got to be bold and clear and show some anger and deep humanitarian concern.”

A president or cabinet secretary would not normally show up immediately at such an accident site, in part to avoid interfering with emergency crews, experts said. But after the incident went viral, the absence of Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was seized on by conservatives to argue that the White House was uninterested in small-town America.

Brinkley said the administration erred in waiting so long to show that the president and his top aides were actively engaged. “It seems like they hoped that since the environmental disaster wasn’t lethal, that it would fade from the news cycle in a few days,” he said.

Three weeks after a train derailment spilled toxic chemicals outside of East Palestine, crews work to dismantle the burnt wreckage Feb 23rd. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

White House aides countered that the administration was focused on solving problems on the ground — testing the air quality, interviewing witnesses and providing technical guidance — while others played politics. Still, the predicament in East Palestine has only grown more fraught and frenzied, especially after the emergence of images of a menacing-looking black plume looming over East Palestine; it was the result of a controlled release of chemicals to avoid an explosion, but to some it symbolized the idea of dark threats hovering over small-town America.

To get scoops, sharp political analysis and accountability journalism in your inbox each morning, sign up for The Early 202.

In recent days, former president Donald Trump has arrived at the scene offering branded water bottles and political swipes; Buttigieg, his star power diminished by the crisis, has expressed regret for not speaking up sooner; and conservative outlets have broadcast a loop of images of dead fish and distraught residents to bolster a narrative of government neglect. Meanwhile, Democrats have cast the incident as a tale of corporate malfeasance, blaming Republicans for gutting safety regulations.

This account of how a train derailment, one of about 1,000 each year in America, morphed into the latest front in the nation’s culture wars is based on interviews with administration officials, lawmakers, rail safety experts, local residents, historians and environmental advocates, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Biden himself addressed the controversy publicly for the first time Friday. “I’ve spoken with every single major figure in both in Pennsylvania and in Ohio. The idea that we’re not engaged is just simply not there,” he told reporters. “Initially there was not a request for me to go out, even before I was heading over to Kyiv. So I’m keeping very close tabs on it. We’re doing all we can.”

That was just three weeks after the three-person crew of a Norfolk Southern train received an alert about an overheating wheel bearing as they rolled through northeastern Ohio on Friday, Feb. 3. The alert indicated that the bearing had risen to 253 degrees Fahrenheit above the air temperature, tripping an emergency threshold, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report released Thursday.

The engineer immediately applied the brakes and an automatic braking system kicked in, but minutes later the train derailed and several tank cars erupted in flames. Despite the fiery images of mangled train cars lighting up the night sky, it was not immediately clear that this incident would be any different from most derailments.

No one had been killed or injured in East Palestine. There were no initial signs of sabotage or negligence by the train crew.

Federal authorities were almost immediately alerted to the derailment and the fact that 20 of the 149 cars on the train were carrying hazardous materials, and within hours officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Transportation Safety Board and other agencies arrived on-site. By Saturday afternoon, federal and state officials had begun testing the air and municipal water, detecting no concerning levels of contaminants.

“Anybody that lives on these streets, the air as of right now is still fine. Our drinking water is still fine,” East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told reporters. But somewhat ominously, he added, “It’s a very — I don’t want to say dangerous situation — it’s very volatile situation and could turn into a dangerous situation if things don’t happen the way they should.”

The next day, Biden called Mike DeWine, Ohio’s Republican governor, to say the federal government was prepared to provide any additional assistance he might need. For more than a week, DeWine did not call back with such requests, saying the situation was under control.

How railroad hotboxes work

But for many residents of East Palestine, a village of 4,700 in a deep red slice of northeastern Ohio, the assurances from DeWine and other government officials provided little comfort as they sought answers about strange symptoms, scoured social media for information and recalled past instances when experts downplayed environmental hazards only to reverse course later.

Then, on Feb. 5, with fires still smoldering, temperatures in one of the five tank cars carrying highly toxic gas began rising to dangerous levels, prompting fears of a catastrophic explosion. Residents were ordered to evacuate.

DeWine says he spent “hours” on the phone with Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro discussing the pros and cons before deciding to sign off on a controlled release of the chemicals. DeWine spokesman Dan Tierney described it as a harrowing choice between two “bad options,” each with potentially catastrophic outcomes: “controlled release or an uncontrolled explosion with shrapnel.”

Executives from Norfolk Southern told the governors that if an explosion occurred, shrapnel could rain down for at least a mile. Shapiro would later say the company’s executives had been secretive and misleading during the discussions. Norfolk Southern declined to make CEO Alan Shaw available for an interview.

When images of the plume started circulating online several days later, it helped transform the accident from a mostly local matter to a national flash point.

Residents were given clearance to return to their homes on Feb. 8, as federal and state authorities said they would continue to monitor the air and water. The EPA deployed a special plane to monitor air hazards, finding nothing of alarm.

But when residents of East Palestine went back home, they began reporting unexplained symptoms. Some had headaches, others were nauseous. Some complained of itchy skin or dizziness. People also spotted dead fish in creeks and complained of odd smells. Animals died without explanation, adding a twist of mystery to the fast-unfolding tragedy.

State officials said that despite these phenomena, air and water testing showed no chemicals above hazardous thresholds. Some residents wondered why the Federal Emergency Management Agency did not show up, but officials said the case did not qualify for FEMA aid because there wasn’t massive home or property damage, which this accident did not cause (the agency later did send a team).

As questions like those created public confusion, misinformation circulated online, including some claims that the derailment had been planned. And social media users sometimes shared images from right after the accident many days later, making it seem that nothing had been done yet.

“We started seeing a lot of people on Twitter saying, ‘What the heck is happening right now in East Palestine?’ and it would be a week-old video,” Tierney said. “People were just thinking that that was happening live.”

At the White House, officials were focusing on other crises. Biden ordered military jets to shoot down a Chinese spy balloon and several unidentified aerial objects. His Feb. 7 State of the Union address, which did not mention the derailment, was animated by a tense back-and-forth with Republicans over Medicare and Social Security.

It would take until Feb. 21 — two-and-a-half weeks after the derailment — for Biden to comment publicly on it. When he did, it was on Twitter, and the president jumped quickly into the political fray. “Heck, many of the elected officials pointing fingers right now want to dismantle the EPA — the agency that is making sure this clean up happens,” the president wrote in a long thread defending his administration’s response.

White House aides say the president has been privately engaged all along and that dozens of administration officials were adeptly handling fast-changing circumstances on the ground. “They quickly got to work holding the rail company accountable, containing the damage, and monitoring for environmental impacts,” a White House official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. The official added that Biden’s “team has kept members of Congress and state and local leaders updated on response efforts throughout.”

Lynn R. Goldman, a former EPA official and dean of George Washington University’s public health school, said it generally is not helpful for top leaders to show up right after an accident. “High-level politicians showing up in the middle of an emergency response only detracts from your ability to do the response,” Goldman said.

Ohio authorities have been in charge of much of the response, and DeWine has made it clear he did not ask the Biden administration for more help, at least initially.

“The president called me and said, ‘Anything you need.’ I have not called him back after that conversation,” DeWine told reporters on Feb. 14. “We will not hesitate to do that if we’re seeing a problem or anything, but I’m not seeing it.”

Tierney, the governor’s spokesman, said in an interview the Biden administration has supplied significant help. “Did the agencies provide the appropriate response, and was the president and White House in touch with the governor frequently? The answers to those are yes,” Tierney said, adding that the EPA has been “extremely responsive.”

That is not the picture painted by some Republicans, who have taken notice of East Palestine as images of the derailment swept social media. Buttigieg — a rising Democratic star who has shown bigger political ambitions — started taking much of the flak. On Feb. 16, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) wrote a letter to Biden asking him to fire Buttigieg, who he said “has repeatedly demonstrated a gross level of incompetence and apathy that is detrimental to the safety and prosperity of the American people.”

Fact check: Rubio vs. Buttiegieg

Some administration officials were struck that the accident was garnering more national attention, not less, as the days passed — the opposite of the usual pattern. “The interest peaked like a week after” the derailment, said Robert J. Hall, director of NTSB’s railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials division. “Usually it happens the day of and it declines, and by a week after nobody’s talking about it. In this case, it had a reverse curve.”

Fox News host Tucker Carlson used his show to bring race into the discussion, decrying an alleged lack of urgency by the government for a blue-collar community with few people of color. “Is it because these are not their voters?” he asked Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), who agreed with the premise.

Minutes later, Buttigieg sent his first public comments on the incident, tweeting that he was “concerned” about the impact of the derailment and wanted to ensure that “families have access to useful & accurate information.” He would later express regret that he had not spoken out sooner, telling CBS News, “That’s a lesson learned for me.”

By Feb. 16, EPA Administrator Michael Regan was on the ground in East Palestine, pledging that the government would penalize Norfolk Southern for the accident. Appearing with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) at the accident site, Regan asked the community to have faith in his assurances about the air and drinking water.

“We know that there is a lack of trust,” Regan said. “If we say that the water is safe and the air is safe, we believe it, because we’ve tested it and the data shows it.”

That same day, however, Vance visited a local creek he described as filled with dead fish and bubbling with chemicals. “I think if the EPA administrator wants to stand here and tell people that the tap water is safe, by all means, they should be willing to drink it,” Vance told reporters. Regan would later return to East Palestine and drink tap water alongside DeWine.

After DeWine asked Biden for help addressing residents’ questions about their health, the president dispatched teams to conduct screenings on-site, ultimately examining more than 500 homes and finding no dangerous levels of toxins.

But as contradictory claims proliferated and the crisis became increasingly polarized, some residents were not inclined to give the government the benefit of the doubt.

“I haven’t met anybody in town that’s satisfied with the help they’re getting from the federal government — or the railroad,” said Jerry Corbin, who lives just over the state line in Darlington, Pa.

He said the EPA collected samples of the ash littering his yard, but that he is still waiting for any follow-up to understand what sort of contamination rained down with it. Until then, he doesn’t know if he should be tilling his garden or planting beans.

“Is that wise?” Corbin wondered. “Maybe somebody should tell me.”

Others in the community said they were encouraged by EPA’s announcement Tuesday that it would take control of the disaster response and force Norfolk Southern to pay for cleanup. “I don’t like to be afraid, and the unknown is very scary,” said East Palestine resident Michele Parker. “I guess we have to hope for the best.”

But such concerns from residents have been increasingly drowned out by the political squabbling. At a town hall on Feb. 15, East Palestine Mayor Conaway, whose town voted heavily for Trump in 2020, told residents that he had only heard from the White House one day prior and that he had “no idea” where Buttigieg was.

A timeline from the White House states that officials attempted to contact Conaway by phone multiple times beginning on Feb. 6. Conaway did not respond to requests for comment.

After Biden visited Kyiv — part of a long-planned trip aimed to shore up the global alliance against Russia — Conaway told Fox News that he was “furious” that the president was abroad while his constituents were struggling. “That was the biggest slap in the face that tells you right now, he doesn’t care about us,” Conaway said, citing millions in foreign aid Biden announced during his trip.

The next day, Conaway said he’d been frustrated and walked back his comments, telling reporters his constituents did not want to be “political pawns.”

But Trump repeated the criticism of Biden’s Ukraine trip when he visited East Palestine on Wednesday, saying he hoped there would be “some money left over” for Ohio.

“You are not forgotten,” Trump told residents.

Buttigieg, who traveled to East Palestine the following day, has said Trump should use his platform to call for the restoration of train safety regulations that were rolled back during his administration. He added that he was working to improve rail safety and ensure that residents are getting everything they need.

“We will never forget the people of East Palestine,” he said.

As political figures fire salvos at each other, experts are pressing ahead on investigating the crash. On Thursday, NTSB chairwoman Jennifer Homendy held a briefing on the board’s initial findings. Calling the derailment “100 percent preventable,” she pledged to get to the bottom of what happened, taking a moment to express her frustration with how politicized the incident had become.

“Enough with the politics on this … I don’t understand why this has gotten so political,” she said. “This is a community that is suffering. This is not about politics.”

Liz Goodwin, Scott Dance and Colby Itkowitz contributed to this report.