Ohio catastrophe goes viral on Chinese social media, with netizens criticizing US for withholding info; Western media blind on 'real accident'
Published: Feb 14, 2023 01:17 PM
This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed on Feb. 3 night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Feb. 4, 2023. Photo: VCG

This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed on Feb. 3 night in East Palestine, Ohio are still on fire at mid-day Feb. 4, 2023. Photo: VCG

An Ohio train derailment accident has stirred heated discussion on Chinese social media with many labeling it "a Chernobyl-level" catastrophe. Many netizens, when criticizing the US for not properly handling the disaster, also questioned if the US government is trying to deliberately withhold information, and hype a balloon incident involving China to divert domestic media attention.

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

First responders and emergency workers had to vent the tankers, spill the vinyl chloride into a trench, and then burn it off before it turned the train into a bomb.Yet officials warned the controlled burn would send phosgene and hydrogen chloride into the air. Phosgene is a highly toxic, colorless gas with a strong odor that can cause vomiting and breathing trouble and was used as a weapon in World War I, according to AP.

By the next day, an official alert warned that local residents needed to move even further away from the disaster zone, beyond the previous 2-mile radius. Roughly half of the affected town's 4,800 residents had to evacuate. The controlled burn worked and the evacuation order for East Palestine residents was officially lifted February 8 after real-time air and water monitoring did not find any contaminant levels above screening limits.

Two Chinese students who are currently studying in Ohio told the Global Times that they have not heard of any relevant information, nor seen the story reported by mainstream US media outlets, adding that the local government had provided no notice over the incident. 

"I've been feeling rhinitis in recent days, which never happened to me before so I am planning to see the doctor soon," said a Chinese student surnamed Zan. She said she was only aware of "such a horrific incident" via Chinese social media.

Another student surnamed Sun, who lives 72 kilometers from the affected area said people are stockpiling mineral water. "Although the government assured people that the any immediate danger has passed, people still remain dubious."

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

The incident has recently triggered heated discussion on Chinese social media, with some comparing it to "a Chernobyl-level" catastrophe. 

Peng Yingdeng, an expert from China's central government supervision center for environmental protection and emergency management told media that vinyl chloride is highly inflammable, when it burns it released carbon dioxide and hydrochloric acid. The latter, when combined with precipitation will produce acid rain and make the land untillable. If the vinyl chloride is not burnt completely, it will release more toxic dioxins and phosgene.

Dioxins is very difficult to degrade naturally, and once it permeates into soil, may remain there for decades, Peng said. He noted that the grains produced from this soil will cause cancer and mutation inside human bodies.

A large number of Chinese netizens are also questioning why such a catastrophic incident has gained little exposure through the Western media, and whether the US is deliberately withholding information from the world. As of time of press, four of the 50 most searched topics on China's Sina Weibo were related to the Ohio incident. Hashtag "release of vinyl chloride in Ohio has caused evacuation of residents" has been read on Weibo for more than 34 million times as of press time.

On Twitter, the hashtag #OhioChernobyl was trending, with one user on the platform claiming "Everything along this pathway will experience one of the world's worst carcinogens on the planet. Areas within a 100-mile radius are reporting mass animal deaths."

"Why on earth is the US withholding details about such a serious accident? If you look at the US media right now, it is all about Chinese balloon stories. I doubt they are deliberately hyping the balloon stories to divert people's attention from the real catastrophe," said a Sina Weibo user, calling the US media also playing "selectively blind."

Chinese netizens also picked up that a US journalist trying to cover the incident was detained by police, saying "so much for the US style freedom of press. Imagine if such thing happened in China, a big accident, and stifling journalists, how would the Western media not cover this?"

US law enforcement officers interrupted NewsNation correspondent Evan Lambert as he broadcast from the disaster zone, where authorities announced they were?lifting a multiday evacuation order near the site of a fiery weekend derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. 

East Palestine police officers placed Lambert under arrest on preliminary charges of criminal trespassing and resisting arrest, Columbiana County Sheriff Brian McLaughlin told CNN.

"No journalist expects to be arrested when you're doing your job, and I think that's really important that that doesn't happen in our country," Lambert told his network in an aired interview after his release.