‘Isn’t Fear News?’
As shown by the events in East Palestine, Ohio, no matter how dramatic the disaster may seem, these days disasters are too common to be remarkable.
Nearly two weeks have passed since a train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, spilling toxic chemicals into the water and air, and all anyone seems to be able to say is that it is under-discussed.
That observation is by no means partisan. “This is one of the deadliest environmental emergencies in decades and no one is talking about it,” Jamal Bowman, a Democratic congressman from New York, tweeted on Monday. A few hours later, J.D. Vance, Ohio’s junior Republican senator, echoed those sentiments on Fox. “The entire country, the media complex, the leaders of this country have decided to disregard the people of East Palestine,” Vance told Tucker Carlson, adding that, “if this story has been covered at all,” the coverage has been deflected from addressing the terrifying implications of the spill.
Neither of these statements—or the hundreds of press releases to the same effect that activists of all stripes have blasted out since the spill—is entirely false. While the story has been widely covered by every major news network (a NewsNation reporter was even arrested last week while broadcasting a press conference), few people are discussing it with the kind of urgency reserved for the great ideological struggles of the past half decade.
And, after all, a spill on this scale is the sort of thing that most people would prefer not to contemplate. About fifty cars of a train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed late in the evening of February 3 in East Palestine, which is on the Pennsylvania border near Youngstown, Ohio. The train was carrying vinyl chloride, an unstable chemical used exclusively in the manufacturing of PVC. (It can be lethal when ingested.) The crash caused an explosion, and the toxic gas billowed into the air and seeped into the earth. No one died in the accident, and people on both sides of the state border were evacuated immediately.
In the days since, strange things have occurred in and around East Palestine. Roughly 3,500 fish have been found floating dead down the streams outside town. A man who breeds foxes watched his skulk choke and defecate themselves to death. A woman who keeps chickens reported the same. When the EPA claimed on Sunday that it was safe to return to the town, those who did go back reported smelling funny odors and developing persistent coughs and mysterious headaches. And further afield, other towns started finding traces of vinyl chloride in their water supply. The EPA sent a letter to Norfolk Southern last Friday noting it found chemicals from the crash in the Ohio River, a major source of drinking water for multiple states. The agency’s state leaders don’t think that’s a cause for fear: “The Ohio River is very large and it’s a water body that’s able to dilute the pollutants pretty quickly.”
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That’s a small comfort, and it’s the attitude usually taken in these situations. In any case, people will remain afraid for a long time. Well-meaning, but ultimately fruitless, efforts will be made to raise awareness about their plight. Eventually, after little is done to help them, their fear will devolve into a dull acceptance so paralyzing that it feels almost pointless to say anything at all. (It should come as no shock that many of the lead pipes in Flint, Michigan, still have not been replaced.) The fundamental issues will not be addressed. The train tracks will continue to rust and the roads will continue to crumble. It will probably happen again and again until eventually it goes unreported.
If some of this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The spill and its aftermath share an eerie similarity with the details of an “airborne toxic event” in Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise. (Oddly, some of the extras in the film version released last year are played by East Palestine residents.) In both novel and reality, everywhere there is a sense that no matter how dramatic the disaster may seem, these days disasters are too common to be remarkable.
“The airborne toxic event is a horrifying thing,” one of DeLillo’s characters cries. “Our fear is enormous. Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?”