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 miles.
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-up.
“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 for miles.
“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 fish.
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 events.
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.”
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