Residents of the Ohio town of East Palestine say authorities have kept them in the dark about the risks of a chemical spill on a nearby railway line, while they suffer unexplained health problems and witness wildlife dying out.
Two residents of the US state of Ohio have born witness to the government cover-up of an unfolding environmental disaster.
A train hauling tanks of the flammable, cancer-causing chemical Vinyl Chloride derailed near the small town of East Palestine, Ohio, on Friday February 3, causing an explosion that created a huge black mushroom cloud over the area.
Firefighters later conducted a controlled burn of the remaining chemicals, releasing tons of acidic hydrogen chloride and phosgene — an extremely toxic, heavier-than-air gas used as a chemical weapon in the First World War — into the environment.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials evacuated some residents from the area on the Pennsylvania border, between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The agency later told them to return home, claiming there was no long-lasting or dangerous contamination.
But locals say the spill has left hundreds of wild animals dead around the town.
Authorities have been reticent to answer questions about the accident. Journalist Evan Lambert was even wrestled to the ground and handcuffed at a press conference with Ohio Governor Mike DeWine.
“The governmental regulators are saying everything’s fine, guys just go home,” Misty Winston, a political activist, told Sputnik. “And that’s absurd.”
“The chemicals that were in these railcars are no joke,” she stressed, pointing out that vinyl chloride, used to make PVC, boils at eight degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius) and that hydrogen chloride combines with water — including vapour in the atmosphere — to form hydrochloric acid.
“So they’re pretending like this burning off of these chemicals with some huge success,” Winston said. “And then they’re failing to tell people that we now potentially have hundreds of thousands of pounds of acid in the air.”
The resident said she had heard of people up to 40 miles away from the crash who complained of headaches, burning eyes and the smell of chemicals including chlorine in the air. “It rained there a few days ago, and cars drove through and you could see the damage to the vehicles from the stuff that’s in the air,” Winston said.
US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has been quiet on the disaster, focussing instead on the hysteria about Chinese weather balloons drifting over US airspace.
“It took him ten days, ten days to mention a word of it. He even went to some function a couple of days ago and was making jokes about balloons but didn’t breathe a word,” Winston said. “And then he even had the nerve to say that this is an exciting time for transportation. Yeah, dude, Ohio is on fire. Like, that’s a really exciting time.”
Northeast Ohio resident and community activist Jack Slater told Sputnik that locals were feeling a mixture of “confusion and frustration and desperation” as they face “a whole lot of unanswered questions about what the impact of any of these chemicals are going to be on this community.”
“No one is being forthright with what the real impact and implication of all of this is,” Slater stressed. “Everybody within a huge radius, especially to the east because of prevailing winds, is constantly asking myself, can I live my life the way I like to, or am I, you know, getting filled up with a whole bunch of carcinogens?”
Th activist said the EPA was being more open than other branches of government, but was still “politically hamstrung about how to respond to something like this.”
“The EPA cut back the evacuation order,” Slater said. People were only gone for a few days and then they told everybody to go home.”
Those who wanted their homes screened for contamination were told to pay for it themselves, he added. “So people have all been completely left in the lurch here as government agencies that are supposed to be responsible for this have completely failed their duties.”
While Slater believed DeWine was not directly responsible for the arrest of Lambert, he accused the governor of trying to “wash his hands” of the incident.
He recalled that the journalist was standing near the back at the press conference, and was accused of being too loud.
“I think it’s worth noting that Lambert is a large black man, which certainly affects the way he’s viewed by, you know, agents of the state,” Slater said. “It was actually an Ohio National Guard officer who initiated contact with Lambert, told him to shut up, to be quiet, that he’s being disruptive.”
Lambert “stood up for himself, said ‘I’m a journalist and covering this’,” he continued. While the police were initially unsure of how to respond, “they decided to side with the National Guard, no surprise, and started taking Lambert to the ground and arrested him.”
On Wednesday, however, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost’s office said it dismissed charges against NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert.
“Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost today announced that the criminal charges filed against NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert have been dismissed,” the attorney general’s office said in a press release.
Yost said his office reviewed evidence and found that there was insufficient evidence to support the charges the Columbiana County Prosecuting Attorney filed against Lambert.
Yost added that Lambert was lawfully present at the press conference where he was arrested and his conduct was consistent with the purpose of the event and his role as a reporter.