Ohio Train Derailment Is Another Excuse for Mudslinging and Conspiracy Theorizing

Plus: Did the Pentagon shoot down a hobby radio balloon?, Kentucky abortion ban can be enforced, and more...


Long-term risks still unclear, experts say. Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, aren't sure if it's safe to stay in the area after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed there and authorities released toxic materials into the air from train cars in danger of blowing up.

The "controlled burn of the toxic materials has filled the air and covered surface waters and soil with chemicals," notes The New York Times. "Dead fish have floated in nearby creeks, and an unnerving aroma has lingered in the air."

All told, several dozen Norfolk Southern train cars—including 11 transporting hazardous materials—derailed near East Palestine on February 3. Two days later, hundreds of areas residents and businesses were told to evacuate and, on February 6, authorities released vinyl chloride from five of the tanker cars to keep them from exploding.

On February 8, the evacuation order was lifted. But although East Palestinians have been allowed to return to their homes and businesses, they worry that doing so is risky and say there's a lack of clear guidance about what is and isn't safe.

These worries have been exacerbated by speculation and hyperbole from politicians, pundits, and folks on social media—where "commentators have called the situation the 'largest environmental disaster in history' or simply 'Chernobyl 2.0,'" the Times points out:

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."

In other words, the disaster has been fertile ground for conspiracy theorists and partisan mudslinging. (See, for instance, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio using this as an excuse to call for the firing of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Or The Nation using the opportunity to take shots at capitalism.)

Left in the lurch are the people of East Palestine, who aren't sure what to believe.

"I think most of the residents here are concerned that they're going to sweep this under the rug," East Palestine resident Lisa Simmons told PBS NewsHour. "We have got dead fish in the streams. There's a lot of reports of pets and animals dying. And we just want to make sure that we're taking care of here."

For what it's worth, the Environmental Protection Agency said the air is safe and public water systems are safe.

But there are still a lot of unknowns about long-term risks, some experts say.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is still investigating how this happened.

A report this week from the NTSB said there was an overheated wheel bearing on the rail car that started the derailment. Wayside hot-box detectors—which use infrared sensors to detect when rail car components are overheating—are supposed to detect this sort of thing and flag rail crews about issues. "A hot-box detector in East Palestine notified the crew moments before the train derailed," noted train industry publication FreightWaves. "It's unclear if any hot-box detector prior to East Palestine notified crews."

Around East Palestine, Norfolk Southern currently employs no signalmen who specialize in the maintenance of devices like hot-box detectors, according to FreightWaves. Christopher Hand, director of research at the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, told the publication that signalmen these days spent most of their time on government-mandated tests rather than routine maintenance.

"At a very boisterous meeting [Wednesday] night in the local high school gym, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway told the crowd through a bullhorn that Norfolk Southern would be held accountable," reports The Bulwark. Conaway said: "They screwed up our town, they're going to fix it."

The Bulwark piece, by Ohio writer Daniel McGraw, delves into some interesting context about East Palestine and nearby areas, where environmental and economic concerns have been butting up against each other:

About twenty miles from where the derailment occurred, a plant operated by Shell Oil opened last fall. It was nearly ten years in the making. Located on the Ohio River near Monaca, Pennsylvania, the facility, known as an "ethane cracker," opened in November and employs about 600 people to make the tiny pellets that are the precursor for nearly every product made of plastic. These pellets are often called "nurdles."

The process of making plastics involves separating the ethane and methane out of natural gas and heating the methane until it transforms into ethylene, the highly reactive raw material for polyethylene, the most common kind of plastic. The process is ecologically problematic in several ways.

One day before the train derailed, two environmental groups announced they were suing Shell Chemical Appalachia, operator of the Monaca plant, for violations of federal and state air-quality standards….

But the business community and many elected officials argue that even if there are environmental risks, the economic benefits are undeniable—and sorely needed. "You can't just have a service economy," Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning said in an interview last spring. He links the loss of the area's once-robust steel industry to the more than 50 percent decline in its school-age population between 1972 and 2012, and is eager for something to lift the community's prospects again.

It's against this backdrop that the train carrying chemicals that help make plastics derailed.

The big problem, writes McGraw, is that "the solution that the government and Norfolk Southern went with of burning the chemicals and then sending in the crisis manager to ascertain the severity of the situation seems like the sort of decision that favors the trains more than the people."

Whether that was the right decision or not is hard for laypeople to assess—which is probably what makes this situation so ripe for politicking and conspiracy theorizing.


Did the Pentagon shoot down a hobby radio balloon? President Joe Biden said on Thursday that the unidentified flying objects (UFOs) the U.S. shot down last week and over the weekend were not Chinese spy balloons. Meanwhile, some evidence suggests that at least one of them may have been a tiny amateur radio "pico" balloon. This sort of hobby ballooning relies on mylar helium party balloons to carry solar-powered transmitters, which can be picked up by amateur radio hobbyists.


There is speculation that at least one of the objects shot down over Canada, Yukon by a US Air Force jet may have been amateur radio pico balloon K9YO-15 which was launched from Illinois on October 10 2022. It was on it's [sic] seventh circumnavigation of the globe after being aloft for 123 days.

The launch blog post indicates that the K9YO-15 balloon was flying a silver mylar 32″ sphere SAG balloon which appears to be this one from…A pentagon memo notes that the object shot down over Canada was a "small metallic balloon with a tethered payload" which fits the description of the pico balloon exactly.

The K9YO-15 balloon ceased all WSPR telemetry transmissions while flying just below Alaska since Feb 11 00:18 UTC (just before sunset in Alaska when the solar panels would stop working).

By using NOAA wind models and the last known location by Alaska, K9YO-15 was projected to have been over Yukon when the US Air Force shot down the unknown balloon object at Feb 11 20:41 UTC (3:41 PM EST / 1:41 PM Yukon time according to Canadian Defense Minister Anand). Reports put the altitude of the shot down object at approximately 40,000ft (~12000 meters), which matches the projected ~11500 meters of K9YO-15. Based on the previous days transmission times, it is suspected that if it were operational, the balloon would have begun transmitting again sometime later in the Yukon afternoon when the sun was stronger, but no transmissions have been seen.

On February 14th the balloon was declared as missing in action by the launch group.

More here.


Fox News hosts' texts revealed in lawsuit from voting machine maker Dominion: 


Kentucky abortion ban can be enforced. Kentucky's Supreme Court held on Thursday that a lower court was wrong to halt enforcement of two state laws limiting abortion. "The two measures are Kentucky's so-called trigger law banning the procedure and a separate 'heartbeat' law restricting abortions at around six weeks of pregnancy," reports CNN:

Siding with Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron, Justice Debra Hembree Lambert asserted in her opinion that the circuit court "abused its discretion by granting abortion provider's motion for a temporary injunction."

Planned Parenthood, along with an abortion provider represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Kentucky, sued to block Kentucky's sweeping abortion laws after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.

They filed two complaints challenging the two statutes, which effectively prohibit abortions in Kentucky except in limited circumstances where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother, according to the opinion….

After a circuit court temporarily enjoined the abortion bans last summer, an appellate court judge granted the attorney general's emergency request to dissolve the injunction, but an appellate panel later recommended that the state's highest court weigh in on the injunction.

More here.


• A Shreveport, Louisiana, police officer has been charged with negligent homicide in the February 3 shooting of an unarmed man, Alonzo Bagley. The officer, Alexander Tyler, was responding to a domestic disturbance report.

• Economist Emily Oster tackles "panic headlines" about screen time and processed foods.

Reason's Billy Binion looks at a letter that hundreds of contributors to The New York Times sent on Wednesday to express discontent with the paper's coverage of transgender issues.

• "It's important for people to grasp reality because no single issue will affect our fiscal future more than Social Security and Medicare," writes Veronique de Rugy.

• OnlyFans creators talk A.I. porn.

• In Virginia, a fight is brewing over access to data from period-tracking apps. ("If you're concerned about a surveillance state newly empowered to snoop through your personal information to possibly prosecute you for procuring an illegal abortion, privacy measures must be much more thorough than merely deleting a period tracking app," noted Reason's Liz Wolfe last summer.)