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Outrage in East Palestine

Lessons Learned--or Still Not Learned--for Communicators from the Norfolk Southern Accident

I live 20 miles from East Palestine, Ohio.

Amid winding country roads, farmland and forests, the little town of just 4,700 sits on the eastern edge of Ohio adjacent to the Pennsylvania border. The Norfolk Southern rail line runs through the center of town, stopping traffic on North Market Street every half hour or so during mid-day as the trains rumble through.

On the evening of February 3rd, a 9,000-foot train of 149 rail cars travelling east was barely a mile from the center of town when it derailed, burst into flames, sending noxious fumes into the night sky, and spilled much of its load of vinyl chloride into Sulphur Run Creek, a distant tributary of the Ohio River.

There are no hotels or motels in East Palestine, so as the wreckage burned, residents were forced from their homes and sought shelter with family and friends. In an instant, the urgent demand for bottled water soared well beyond what was on hand at the small local grocery and two Dollar General stores.

Since that night, subsequent events have been well reported--and well politicized.

“The Plume”

As a lifelong student of events such as this, I’ve now been to East Palestine twice in the past week to simply walk around town, take in the vibe, observe the local buzz around all the news crews and politicians holding press conferences, and record my reflections from more than 30 years in environmental communications.

Over the past 30 years, there has been an average of 1,705 train derailments per year in the U.S. Like highway truck accidents and plane crashes, they are simply a fact of life and one that we can only hope to improve upon. For as long as there have been railroads, there have been derailments. And for as long as mankind has produced industrial chemicals, he has contaminated the environment with them.

So what made this derailment stand out from the other 1,704?

The “plume.”

In the first days following the accident, railroad and environmental regulators determined that it was necessary to burn off the remaining vinyl chloride in damaged railcars to prevent a massive explosion of toxic materials. This controlled burn sent a giant black plume billowing skyward as East Palestine residents watched in horror.

Against a gray winter sky, I could see the plume from my house 20 miles to the south. People throughout eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania paused to catch a glimpse of it, partly because of the spectacle…and partly out of fear.

The blackened sky over East Palestine has become the graphic against which this story has played out in national news coverage every day for the past three weeks (and counting). And its become the symbol of community outrage directed at Norfolk Southern, the EPA, the U.S. Department of Transportation, Ohio governor Mike DeWine, even President Biden.

Lessons Learned (and Still Not Learned)

If there is any good news in all of this its that early indications are that there should be no long-term health impacts from exposure to airborne contaminants. Impacts on local groundwater supplies are less certain, but environmental officials remain hopeful, if not optimistic.

So while the soil and water testing plays out, the class action lawsuits move forward (there have been two filed against Norfolk Southern so far), and the people of East Palestine try to return to some sense of normalcy, what can we take from this experience? What have we learned…or not yet learned…from past accidents and how to engage the community and the news media?

Here are a few lessons learned based on decades of industrial environmental accidents, my personal client experience in this space, and my very unscientific observations from two visits to East Palestine:

  1. Outrage is as important as the hazard. The full measure of a public health risk is the combination of the actual hazard and outrage. Dr. Peter Sandman, the director of the Environmental Communication Research Program at Rutgers University, argues that when people are outraged, they see the hazard as being greater than it actually is. The early test results from East Palestine certainly bear that out. And as we’ve all seen, any attempts at persuading dislocated residents that the actual hazard isn’t serious will simply fall on deaf ears. You can’t have a rational and meaningful dialogue with an emotional public until you reduce the outrage.

  2. An unresponsive process fuels fear and insecurity. Community members, the media, and “opposition candidates” seized upon the response time of railroad and elected leaders – U.S. Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg in particular -- to arrive on-scene, even though Norfolk Southern emergency response teams were in East Palestine the day after the accident. The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene in East Palestine the very next day. Officials from the USEPA were there by 2:00 a.m. — just five hours after the accident. Norfolk Southern officials likewise responded quickly. They deserve tremendous credit for the swift response. Still, outraged residents felt abandoned by their elected leaders, who were seen to be too slow in travelling to the scene. The feeling of helplessness and that “no one is listening” aggravates feelings of outrage, frustration, and mistrust.

  3. Demonstrate concern. Communities naturally assume that government and corporations don’t care about them and that they’ll be left to live with the long-term legacy issues of the contamination on their own. One angry resident even pressed Ohio governor Mike DeWine to spend the night in East Palestine to demonstrate his personal commitment to the town. But in their zeal to reassure residents, both the railroad and government (state and federal) may have overstated the facts and created more doubt that trust.

  4. Emotions are legitimate. You can’t use facts to counter human emotion. It simply will not work. Unfortunately, the first thing technical experts did was air and well water sampling, which showed no immediate threat to public health. Those facts belied the black plume, the fish kill in Sulphur Creek (which was to be expected), and the sight of 50 burning railroad cars. State and federal government officials did their level best to reassure the public with facts and science, but to no avail. They were steamrolled by an outpouring of emotional response and public outrage.

  5. “My science is better than your science.” Government scientists tested the air and water and announced their findings. Then Erin Brockovich came to East Palestine and cast doubt on those early test results. Then personal injury law firms filed two class action lawsuits on behalf of local residents. Who is the voice of reason? Who are the people of East Palestine to believe in the midst of dueling press conferences? You may have science on your side, but if you don’t have trust and take the outrage seriously, it won’t matter.

  6. "Barefoot Epidemiology." It’s a lead-pipe cinch that if you put a live microphone in front of a homeowner who has just been evacuated because of a toxic chemical spill, they’re going to have a lot to say. They’re upset. They’re angry. And they’re looking for someone to blame. So its not unusual to hear a variety of non-specific symptoms like “sore throat,” “watery eyes,” “headaches,” “coughing,” and others, that elude any formal health screening or diagnosis. Here’s a guarantee—in time, there will be claims of cancer cases in East Palestine directed at the Norfolk Southern derailment. Of this I am 100% certain. How can I be so sure? Because in the United States, half of all women and one-third of men will develop cancer in their lifetime. That means that in any given American neighborhood, close to half the households will be stricken with the disease, some of them fatally. Will some of these cases occur in East Palestine? Absolutely. Will they have been caused by the train derailment chemical spill? Only time will tell, but to an angry community looking for someone to blame, that will be the prime suspect. So the news media will do what it does in covering stories like this and report on people with non-specific health impacts and make the unscientific presumption that the chemical spill is the cause. We need to do a better job of being responsible, accurate, and fair to the science in reporting such stories.

Sometimes, there is no villain

It’s true that accidents happen. In the case of the East Palestine train derailment, residents are looking for immediate answers and someone to blame for their hardship. To point the finger at someone. But who? Emergency response teams did their jobs well. The NTSB investigation will take time and will likely provide clarity on the cause of the accident. And while it appears that Norfolk Southern will bear at least some measure of accountability, no class action lawsuit or government penalty will provide the people of East Palestine with all the answers, all the reparations, or all the satisfaction they want.

But eventually--somewhere--there will be another train derailment, another chemical spill, another black plume. And with it, another outraged community seeking answers. Easing the fear of uncertainty and building relationships out of understanding and trust is the challenge for communicators when the next industrial accident goes off the rails.

Robert Oltmanns, APR, Fellow PRSA is the president of OPR Group in Pittsburgh. He was an adjunct professor of environmental public relations at Duquesne University and corporate communications at Carnegie Mellon University. He’s also the co-author of “Crisis Communications: Practical PR Strategies for Reputation Management & Company Survival.”


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