Ohio train derailment fact check: What’s true and what’s false?

Written by on February 16, 2023

A train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, prompted an array of false and misleading claims on social media, where posts built on speculation, assumptions or outright falsehoods accumulated thousands of shares and millions of views.

The incident began shortly before 9 p.m. Feb. 3 when a Norfolk Southern train left the tracks while traveling from Madison, Illinois, to Conway, Pennsylvania. A total of 38 cars derailed and a fire ensued, damaging another 12 cars, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. There were 20 cars carrying hazardous materials, 11 of which derailed.

Residents were ordered to evacuate when, due to the threat of a possible explosion, authorities chose to breach five tankers filled with vinyl chloride, sending hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a toxic gas, into the air.

Here are some of the claims that spread most online in the wake of the chaos.

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Claim: The government has locked down East Palestine

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East Palestine was placed under a state of emergency and temporary evacuation orders, but there is no indication citizens are being prevented from traveling in and out of the town.

“East Palestine is not in lockdown,” James Lee, the media relations manager for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said in an email to USA TODAY.

Immediately after the train derailment on Feb. 3, about half the 4,761 residents of East Palestine were told to evacuate, USA TODAY previously reported. More than 500 of them chose to stay in their homes, though.

More:Ohio Gov. DeWine warns of possible ‘major explosion’ at train derailment site; evacuations ordered

Residents received another evacuation notice on Feb. 5 when officials determined that a dangerous explosion was possible.

Evacuation orders were lifted Feb. 8, when Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and other officials said it was safe for residents to return home.

Claim: Residents of East Palestine have been told not to return by local officials

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Residents who evacuated East Palestine have been told they can safely return to their homes, according to a Feb. 8 press release from the governor’s office. 

This came after tests performed inside and outside the evacuation zone found the air quality is safe, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson told the Associated Press. The agency made the results of these tests publicly available on its website

Claim: Animals in the area are dying 

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Thousands of fish are believed to have died from chemicals spilled due to the train derailment, but officials have yet to find evidence that nonaquatic wildlife was harmed.

About 3,500 fish across 12 species have died in creeks and streams near East Palestine in the aftermath of the incident, Mary Mertz, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said at a Feb. 14 news conference.

There doesn’t appear to have been any increase in the number of fish and other aquatic animals killed since the first few days after the derailment, Mertz said.

“We don’t have any evidence of nonaquatic species suffering from the derailment,” she added.

There have been anecdotal reports of other animals becoming sick or dying in the wake of the derailment. Teresa McGuire, director of the Columbiana County Humane Society, which covers East Palestine, told the Herald-Star she has been compiling a list of animals possibly sickened from exposure to toxic chemicals. 

More:Residents seek answers over Ohio train derailment

McGuire said she had received reports from more than 20 families as of Feb. 13, and some of the animals were diagnosed by their veterinarian with vinyl chloride poisoning.

Tissue samples from a six-week-old beef calf that died Feb. 11 in an area about two miles from East Palestine have been sent to the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory to see if a cause of death can be determined, according to a Feb. 16 news release from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

The department “continues to assure Ohioans that its food supply is safe and the risk to livestock remains low,” the release says.

Claim: Dead fish and cattle have been reported hundreds of miles away

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There so far has been no evidence of harm to wildlife or livestock other than the roughly 3,500 fish killed in the immediate area of the derailment shortly after it happened, officials say.

Brian Baldridge, director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said at the Feb. 14 news conference that “to this date, there is nothing we’ve seen in the livestock community that causes any concerns.”

A plume of contaminants is still slowly moving along the Ohio River, Tiffani Kavalec, who leads the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s division of surface water, said at the same news conference.

More:A strong stench, toxic water, and dead fish: What we know about the Ohio train derailment

Officials are tracking the plume in real time and expect treatment and the closing of water intakes to keep the chemicals out of local water systems, Kavalec said.

“The Ohio River is very large, and it’s a water body that is able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly,” she said.

The plume was near Gallipolis, Ohio, as of Feb. 16 and is expected to be near Huntington, West Virginia, by Feb. 17, according to the Feb. 16 news release from the Ohio Emergency Management Agency.

No vinyl chloride has been detected in the Ohio River, the release says.

Claim: Journalists are being arrested in East Palestine

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A single journalist was arrested at a press conference in East Palestine, but the charges have since been dropped. 

Evan Lambert, a reporter for News Nation, was arrested Feb. 8 while delivering a live report on DeWine’s news conference about the train derailment as a press conference was ongoing.

More:Reporter arrested during Ohio train derailment briefing

Fact check: Post misleads on journalist arrests after Ohio derailment

A Columbiana County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson previously told USA TODAY that Lambert was charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing, both of which are misdemeanor charges. However, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced on Feb. 15 that the charges against Lambert had been dismissed.

There have been no reports of other journalists being arrested in East Palestine since the derailment. 

“The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is not aware of the arrest of any journalist in Ohio recently other than Evan Lambert, whose charges were dismissed today,” said Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. “We’ve not received any indication reporters are being denied access to events that would otherwise be open to the press.”

A bevy of national and local news organizations have provided coverage of the events in East Palestine

Claim: Norfolk Southern is only offering residents $5 each

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The idea that residents are only receiving $5 in compensation is “categorically false,” said Norfolk Southern media relations specialist Connor Spielmaker. 

The claim appeared to originate with the initial announcement of a $25,000 Norfolk Southern donation for the community, the equivalent of $5 for each of the village’s roughly 5,000 residents. But the plan was never to pay out that money directly, and the company’s financial commitment has grown since.

Spielmaker said the company is now sending $1,000 checks to residents of East Palestine.

More:Trains are becoming less safe. Why the Ohio derailment disaster could happen more often

Norfolk Southern began offering the money to residents living within a one-mile radius of the crash site after the evacuation notice was lifted on Feb. 8, Spielmaker said. By Feb. 15, that program was expanded to include all residents living within the 44413 zip code, according to a press release from the company.

The company also announced on Feb. 14 that it had established a $1 million charitable fund to assist the community. 

Detailed fact-checks on Ohio spill claims 

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