Editorial: East Palestine’s environmental disaster is a transparency disaster as well

Editorial Board

On Feb. 3, a devastating train derailment occurred in East Palestine, Ohio, spreading toxic chemicals across the area. While previously some officials were saying that the spilled and burning chemicals were no longer hazardous, more developments have since occurred, reiterating how devastating the effects have been to the surrounding area. Residents were urged to evacuate the town, and while some authorities are saying it is safe to come back, residents are wary. The dubious air quality, emergence of dead animals and water contamination has only become more apparent.

There is no clear answer as to whether or not the water is contaminated in the municipal system in East Palestine or the Ohio River—while water and air have been tested, public representatives have come out with conflicting statements, and there is uncertainty about the possible long-term effects. There seems to be no one steering the ship.

This lack of organization extends to disclosure of information to the public as well. The public has been given clashing information, with consistent miscommunication between townsfolk and officials. While the E.P.A. says they have not “detected contaminants at ‘levels of concern,’” reports of dead fish and chickens have started to emerge from residents around the area. Similarly, while some officials have stated the water is fine, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine advised residents not to drink the water and drink bottled water instead. It’s been two weeks since the hazardous accident, but the East Palestine community has no clear answer as to what to do or what they should be worried about.

Even Environmental Activist Erin Brockovich commented on the incident, specifically expressing how the misinformation and unclarity surrounding the situation is “very frustrating and concerning.” Brockovich called out “local, state, and federal” public officials, telling them to “show up” and “act like you care about what’s going on in your backyard in this country.” 

As an activist, Brockovich investigated the illnesses and health conditions in Hinkley, California that she suspected were caused by contaminated groundwater. As a whistleblower, she was instrumental in the case against Pacific Gas & Electric—the energy company that polluted the groundwater but hid that information from residents. Thanks to the immense help Brockovich provided, the case was settled for over $300 million. Clearly, Brokovich is familiar with environmental disasters caused by corporations. However, Brokovich’s words don’t just carry weight for the residents of East Palestine, they illustrate how there is still a lack of transparency when it comes to environmental disasters. 

While the situation in East Palestine has not been buried like in the PG&E case from the 1990s, it also has not been at the forefront of national media outlets until now, two weeks after the train cars initially derailed and ignited, nor have officials been forthcoming about critical safety information. In both situations, officials and businessmen alike have been protecting their reputations rather than helping people. Between the National Transportation Safety Board being vague about their investigative effort and the causes of the derailment and local police acting on directions to arrest reporters on site, the truth has been buried with prejudice. 

It is incredibly alarming that in the 30 years since Brockovich reported on the disaster in Hinkley, not much has changed in regard to transparency of man-made environmental disasters. East Palestine, or any other similarly affected community, doesn’t deserve this worry and hazard, and we as humans deserve to have our health and safety be put above monetary ambitions.