Ohio train derailment in East Palestine: What we can VERIFY

Thirty-eight Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, spilling toxic chemicals. Here’s what we can VERIFY.

On Friday, Feb. 3, 38 Norfolk Southern freight train cars derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, igniting a large fire that damaged 12 other cars. 

Eleven of the train cars that derailed were carrying hazardous materials, including a toxic chemical called vinyl chloride, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). 

In the days after the derailment, vinyl chloride was released from some of the train cars and burned, resulting in a large plume of smoke over the area. Thousands of residents were forced to evacuate during what officials called a “controlled release.” 

Multiple claims have circulated on social media in the days since the train derailment. 

Some people have claimed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) initially denied aid to East Palestine following the derailment, though some people say the agency has since reversed its decision.

Others have tweeted about the deaths of fish and livestock due to the toxic chemicals spilled during the derailment. 

Here’s what we can VERIFY about the train derailment in Ohio so far.

This story will be updated as new information comes in. Do you have a question about the derailment? Email questions@verifythis.com


Sign up for the VERIFY Fast Facts daily Newsletter!


1. FEMA team, other federal resources deployed to East Palestine after the derailment.  

Following a request from Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, President Joe Biden’s administration has deployed more federal resources to East Palestine following the derailment. 

On Feb. 17, 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are deploying a team of medical personnel and toxicologists to “conduct public health testing and assessments,” according to the Biden administration.

A medical clinic opened in East Palestine on Feb. 21 to help people impacted by the derailment. This comes as some East Palestine residents remain concerned about lingering symptoms such as headaches and eye irritation.  

Visitors to the free clinic will have their vital signs taken and will see a doctor, who will conduct a medical exam, the state Department of Health says. Mental health specialists and a toxicologist are also available for consultations. 

Residents can make appointments by calling 234-564-7755 or 234-564-7888.

DeWine previously said FEMA told his administration that Ohio didn’t qualify for assistance following the derailment. While FEMA hasn’t commented on whether it rejected aid for East Palestine, the federal agency has since announced that it will deploy resources to the area.

FEMA will send a senior response official and Regional Incident Management Assistance Team to East Palestine to “support ongoing operations, including incident coordination and ongoing assessments of potential long term recovery needs,” FEMA Regional Administrator Thomas C. Sivak and DeWine said in a joint statement on Feb. 17.  

2. The NTSB has released its preliminary report on the derailment. 

NTSB investigators released a preliminary report on the East Palestine derailment on Feb. 23.

The NTSB report said crew members had no indication that the train was in trouble until an alarm sounded just before it went off the tracks. 

An engineer slowed and stopped the train to inspect a hot axle after getting a “critical audible alarm message,” according to the report. 

The train’s crew then saw fire and smoke and notified dispatch of a possible derailment. 

“We have no evidence that the crew did anything wrong,” said NTSB safety board Chair Jennifer Homendy during a press briefing on Feb. 23

Surveillance video from a local residence showed what appeared to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment occurred, NTSB investigators said.

The NTSB has collected both the wheelset from the suspected rail car and the suspected overheated wheel bearing as evidence and will examine them. Its investigation into the derailment is ongoing. 

3. Ohio officials say controlled burn prevented a potential ‘catastrophic’ explosion.

In the days after the derailment, five of the cars containing a chemical called vinyl chloride were “unstable” and at risk of explosion, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office said

DeWine said during a press conference on Feb. 14 that the potential explosion was described to him as “catastrophic,” sending deadly shrapnel up to one mile away from the derailment site.

Due to the explosion risk, Northfolk Southern Railroad conducted a controlled release of the vinyl chloride content in five rail cars. This release involved burning the toxic chemicals, sending up a massive plume of smoke and forcing residents to evacuate due to the risk of inhaling potentially deadly fumes. 

4. The EPA isn’t detecting 'chemicals of concern' in the air related to the burn.

The derailed train cars were carrying multiple toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride.

Vinyl chloride is a colorless and flammable gas, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. It’s used to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, wire coatings, vehicle upholstery and plastic kitchenware, along with other products. 

According to the federal government’s National Cancer Institute, vinyl chloride exposure has been associated with an increased risk of liver, brain and lung cancers, along with lymphoma and leukemia.

When vinyl chloride is burned, like it was during the release, it produces chemicals such as hydrogen chloride and phosgene, according to the CDC. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it’s monitoring levels of these chemicals, along with others, following the derailment.  

Phosgene was used “extensively” as a weapon during World War I, according to the CDC. Exposure to phosgene can lead to coughing, difficulty breathing, vomiting and even death. 

Exposure to hydrogen chloride gas can irritate the skin, nose, eyes and throat, the CDC says.

Vinyl chloride in the air breaks down in a few days. This results in the formation of other chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, which is a mineral acid.

If hydrochloric acid comes into contact with a person’s skin or other tissues, it can cause severe chemical burns, the Virginia Department of Health says. The severity of those burns depends on the concentration of the acid and how long it’s left in contact with tissues. Hydrochloric acid in the eyes can also cause blindness.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to monitor the air in the East Palestine area. So far, results provided by the EPA “continue to show no presence of volatile or organic compounds (VOCs) from the train crash,” according to DeWine’s office.

“Similarly, the U.S. EPA reports that it is not detecting any airborne phosgene or mineral acids, which were chemicals of concern directly related to the controlled burn process,” DeWine’s office said. 

Residents in the area may notice a smell from the site because some of the contaminants that were released by the derailment “have a low odor threshold,” which means they “can be smelled at levels much lower than what is considered hazardous,” according to DeWine’s office. 

For the latest East Palestine air quality report from Accuweather, click here

5. DNR estimates that tens of thousands of fish have died following the derailment. 

Toxic chemicals spilling from the derailment have likely killed tens of thousands of fish, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates. 

After receiving a final sample number of dead aquatic species, the ODNR used a calculation to estimate that approximately 38,000 minnows were killed as a result of the derailment. An estimated 5,500 other aquatic species, including small fish, crayfish and amphibians, were also killed, the department said. 

ODNR said the small fish are all believed to have been killed immediately after the derailment, adding that the department has not seen additional signs of aquatic life suffering in streams because the chemicals were contained. 

The Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA) has received tissue samples from a six-week-old beef calf that died on Feb. 11 in an area located about two miles from East Palestine, DeWine’s office said on Feb. 17. The department is working to determine whether it can identify a cause of death. 

The ODA continues to assert that the state’s “food supply is safe and the risk to livestock remains low” following the derailment. 

“There is no information to suggest that pets are not safe outside, but if you believe your domestic animal has been sickened as a result of the train derailment, please contact your local veterinarian,” DeWine’s office said.

6. The Ohio River’s water is safe, Gov. DeWine says. 

After state officials said they were tracking a “plume” of contaminants making its way down the Ohio River, DeWine said during his Feb. 17 press conference that the water is safe

Tiffany Kavalec, chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s surface water division, said during an earlier press conference that “fire combustion chemicals” flowed to the Ohio River following the derailment.

Samples of water from the river found that the chemical butyl acrylate was in the plume in “trace amounts,” the state EPA said. But the most recent water samples did not detect the chemical in the river water. Vinyl chloride has not been detected in the river, either. 

“I’m happy to report this morning that sampling has shown the plume has now completely dissipated," DeWine said during his most recent press conference. "It was never thought to be a threat, but they could get slight detections."

Some water systems along the Ohio River will still close their water intake lines “out of an abundance of caution,” DeWine said. 

Other bodies of water close to the derailment site, however, remain contaminated. This includes a section of a stream called Sulphur Run. 

More than 1.6 million gallons of contaminants and contaminated water associated with the derailment have been removed from the area, DeWine’s office said on Feb. 22

The state EPA also addressed videos shared online that show people stirring up water in creeks and streams, causing a “sheen to form on the water.”

“Some of the hydrocarbons from the initial fire bonded with sediments,” the state EPA said. “Stirring stagnant sediment from any body of water has the potential to create a sheen. However, we are not seeing these contaminants in the water itself unless disturbed because they have bonded to the sediment. “

Sediment removal will be part of long-term cleanup efforts following the derailment, the state EPA said. 

7. Municipal water wells aren’t contaminated, but private well water should be tested.

The five wells that feed into East Palestine’s municipal water system are not contaminated, DeWine’s office said in a press release on Feb. 15.

East Palestine’s municipal water system provides drinking water for most residents in the area. It takes in water from five wells that are approximately one mile away from the derailment site.

According to the governor’s office, “the municipal wells are at least 56 feet below the surface and covered by a solid steel casing that protects the water from contamination.” Water from the five wells is combined and treated before it’s made available to the public. 

The Ohio EPA tested the combined, treated water, along with raw, untreated water directly from all five wells, after the derailment. The tests showed no contamination.

“With these test results, [the] Ohio EPA is confident that the municipal water is safe to drink,” the governor’s office said. 

The Ohio EPA recommends that people who receive their drinking water from private wells, rather than the municipal water system, schedule an appointment for well water testing. That’s because those private wells “may be closer to the surface than the municipal water wells,” the governor’s office said. 

DeWine’s office said on Feb. 22 that the Columbiana County Health Department has sampled 74 private wells in the area and final test results are pending.

The Ohio Department of Health also recommends that those with private wells use bottled water until their test results are returned. 

Anyone who needs information on scheduling private well water testing should call 330-849-3919.

8. Norfolk Southern has donated money to the Ohio Red Cross and East Palestine residents.

Following the derailment, some people claimed in viral online posts that Norfolk Southern donated $25,000 to East Palestine – a small sum of money for a multibillion-dollar company. 

Norfolk Southern, which is worth nearly $55 billion, did donate $25,000 to the Ohio Red Cross in order to support a shelter established at East Palestine High School. 

But the company is offering additional aid to residents beyond the Red Cross donation.

Norfolk Southern said in a press release on Feb 13 that it is “developing a charitable fund to support the East Palestine community” following the derailment, but did not provide additional details about the fund. 

The company says it has also distributed more than $1 million to East Palestine residents to cover evacuation costs. This includes reimbursements and cash advancements for lodging, travel, food, clothes and other items. 

According to the press release, Norfolk Southern’s other aid efforts include the donation of more than 100 air purifiers for residents to use in their homes and a $220,000 donation to the East Palestine Fire Department to replace air packs that allow firefighters to breathe compressed air while responding to fires. 

Norfolk Southern says it is also working to provide aid to affected local businesses. 

9. Charges have been dropped after a reporter was arrested while covering the derailment.

Criminal charges filed against NewsNation reporter Evan Lambert have been dismissed after he was arrested while reporting live from a Gov. DeWine press conference about the derailment, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced on Feb. 15

Lambert faced misdemeanor charges of resisting arrest and criminal trespass, according to Yost. 

“While journalists could conceivably be subject to criminal charges for trespassing in some situations, this incident is not one of them,” Yost said. “The reporter was lawfully present at a press conference called by the Governor of the state. His conduct was consistent with the purpose of the event and his role as a reporter.”

Lambert was arrested on Feb. 8, 2023, the East Palestine Police Department said in a press release that has since been deleted from its Facebook page. NewsNation confirmed in a report that Lambert was released from jail the same day. 

Police described Lambert’s reporting inside the East Palestine Elementary gymnasium as “loud,” and said authorities from several agencies told him to stop his live reporting “in an effort to ensure that all members of the media were getting necessary safety information.” 

Then, as shown in body camera footage obtained by VERIFY partner station WKYC, Ohio National Guard Adjutant General John Harris and Lambert-McMichael began arguing. Harris told officers Lambert-McMichael came at him in an “aggressive manner,” leading Harris to push Lambert away because he was “feeling threatened,” East Palestine police said. 

Authorities then asked Lambert-McMichael to leave the building several times, but he refused to do so, according to police.

While authorities escorted Lambert-McMichael out of the building, “he attempted to pull away” and was placed under arrest for criminal trespassing, East Palestine police said. 

During this time, Lambert-McMichael “resisted arrest” and was taken to the ground during a struggle, according to police. He was eventually taken to the Columbiana County Jail.

Yost said “tensions were running high in the days following the derailment” and “local officials appeared to be following the lead of the National Guard.”

“Regardless of the intent, arresting a journalist reporting at a press conference is a serious matter,” he said. “Ohio protects a free press under its constitution, and state officials should remember to exercise a heightened level of restraint in using arrest powers.”

In a statement shared via Twitter on Feb. 15, Lambert said he is “grateful” to those who helped to secure his release and the eventual dismissal of charges, which “should never have been filed in the first place.”

“I am doing alright. And I will be OK. I will also continue to do my job without fear or favor in service of the public,” Lambert wrote. “I also hope what happened to me shines further attention on the people of East Palestine, who rightly have questions about their safety in light of an environmental hazard.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

The VERIFY team works to separate fact from fiction so that you can understand what is true and false. Please consider subscribing to our daily newsletter, text alerts and our YouTube channel. You can also follow us on Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and TikTok. Learn More »

Follow Us

Want something VERIFIED?

Text: 202-410-8808

Related Stories