Ohio disaster goes viral on Chinese social media, netizens criticize US for withholding information; Western media blind to ‘real accident’

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk-Southern freight train that derailed in eastern Palestine, Ohio on the night of February 3 and was still burning as of noon on February 4, 2023. Photo: VCG

A train derailment accident in Ohio has sparked heated debate on Chinese social media, with many calling it “a Chernobyl-level disaster.” Many netizens who criticized the US for not handling the disaster properly also questioned whether the US government is trying to intentionally withhold information and hype a balloon incident with China to divert domestic media attention.

The incident happened on February 3 when 50 cars, including 10 carrying hazardous materials, derailed in a fire accident in eastern Palestine, according to rail operator Norfolk Southern and the National Transportation Safety Board. Vinyl chloride was slowly released into the air from five of those cars before crews ignited it to get rid of the highly flammable, toxic chemicals in a controlled environment, creating a cloud of dark smoke.

First responders and rescue workers had to vent the tankers, dump the vinyl chloride into a ditch, and then burn it before it turned the train into a bomb. However, officials warned that controlled burning would release airborne phosgene and hydrogen chloride. Phosgene is a highly toxic, colorless gas with a strong odor that can cause vomiting and breathing difficulties and was used as a weapon in World War I, according to the AP.

The next day, an official warning warned that residents would have to move even further away from the disaster area, beyond the previous 2-mile radius. About half of the 4,800 inhabitants of the affected city had to be evacuated. The controlled burn worked and the evacuation order for residents of eastern Palestine was officially lifted on February 8 after real-time air and water monitoring found no levels of contaminants above screening limits.

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Two Chinese students currently studying in Ohio told the Global Times that they had not heard of any relevant information or seen the story reported by mainstream US media, adding that the local government had no notice of did the incident.

“I’ve been feeling rhinitis for the past few days, which has never happened to me before, so I plan to see a doctor soon,” said a Chinese student surnamed Zan. She said she only found out about “such a terrible incident” through Chinese social media.

Another student, surnamed Sun, who lives 72 kilometers from the affected area, said people were hoarding bottled water. “Although the government has assured people that any immediate danger has passed, people still remain doubtful.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency has not responded to the Global Times as of press time.

The incident recently sparked heated discussion on Chinese social media, with some comparing it to a “Chernobyl-level disaster.”

Peng Yingdeng, an expert with the China Central Government’s Environmental Protection and Emergency Management Monitoring Center, told the media that vinyl chloride is highly flammable and releases carbon dioxide and hydrochloric acid when it burns. The latter, combined with precipitation, will produce acid rain and make the land uncultivable. If the vinyl chloride is not completely burned, more toxic dioxins and phosgene will be released.

Dioxins are very difficult to break down naturally, and once they enter the soil, they can remain there for decades, Peng said. He found that the grains produced from this soil will cause cancer and mutations in the human body.

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A large number of Chinese netizens are also questioning why such a catastrophic incident has received little attention from Western media and whether the US is deliberately withholding information from the world. At press time, four of the top 50 most searched topics on China’s Sina Weibo related to the Ohio incident. The hashtag “Vinyl chloride release in Ohio prompted evacuation of residents” had more than 34 million views on Weibo as of press time.

The hashtag #OhioChernobyl has been trending on Twitter, with a user on the platform claiming, “Everything along this trail will be exposed to one of the world’s worst carcinogens. Areas within 100 miles are reporting mass animal deaths.”

“Why on earth is the US withholding details of such a serious accident? If you’re watching the US media right now, it’s all about Chinese balloon stories. I doubt they are intentionally exaggerating the balloon stories to divert people’s attention from the real disaster,” said a Sina Weibo user, calling the US media also playing “selectively blind.”

Chinese netizens also took note that a US journalist who tried to cover the incident was arrested by police and said, “So much for US-style press freedom. Western media don’t cover it?”

US law enforcement officials interrupted NewsNation correspondent Evan Lambert as he was broadcasting from the disaster area, where authorities announced they were lifting a multi-day evacuation order near the site of a weekend fiery derailment in eastern Palestine, Ohio.

Police officers from East Palestine arrested Lambert on preliminary charges of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest, Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin told CNN.

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“No journalist expects to be arrested for doing your job, and I think it’s really important that that doesn’t happen in our country,” Lambert told his network in an interview that was broadcast after his release.