Stuart Thompson, who patrols the “online information flows” beat for the New York Times, hit out at “right-wing” outlets for not trusting the Environmental Protection Agency’s response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio earlier this month that spewed the carcinogen vinyl chloride and resulted in evacuations for miles around. Thompson dismissed concerns, at least those by conservatives on Friday: “‘Chernobyl 2.0’? Feverish Speculation After Derailment, Fire and Toxic Smoke.”
Yes, the same paper trying to make you terrified of gas stoves is downplaying the crash of a train carrying toxic materials and criticizing those who question the federal response. And perhaps Thompson of all reporters shouldn’t jump too soon and immediately dismiss accusations as right-wing conspiracies?
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.
Thompson admitted that the EPA "acknowledged that the situation in East Palestine, Ohio, is disastrous in many ways," but "Since then, the E.P.A. has said air quality has returned to safe levels...Water testing found “no indication of risk” to public water systems so far, the E.P.A. said…."
(The Times’ confidence in the EPA is touching, given that the Flint, Michigan water controversy wasn’t all that long ago, a controversy that spurred Times headlines like: “E.P.A. Waited Too Long to Warn of Flint Water Danger, Report Says.”)
The Times seemed more concerned about conservatives gaining traction against the Biden administration's response than the actual unfolding ecological disaster.
After a train carrying toxic material derailed in Ohio this month, Right-wing commentators have been particularly critical of the response, using the crisis to sow distrust about government agencies and suggest that the damage could be irreparable. https://t.co/HbGAPdn01P— The New York Times (@nytimes) February 16, 2023
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.
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.
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.
(Judge the news networks’ coverage for yourself.)
There was a surprise cameo at the end from former CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, now at NewsNation.
“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.”