EXTREMISMExtremists Co-opt Norfolk Southern Train Derailment in East Palestine, Ohio

Published 8 March 2023

In the aftermath of the February 3, 2023, freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a range of misinformation and unfounded claims has emerged as extremists and conspiracy theorists leverage the event for their own political and ideological gain.

In the aftermath of the February 3, 2023, freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a range of misinformation and unfounded claims has emerged as extremists and conspiracy theorists leverage the event for their own political and ideological gain. This includes the white supremacist and virulently antisemitic National Justice Party (NJP), which has capitalized on the outrage and suspicions around the Norfolk incident to organize protests in  Ohio and Georgia, promoting their bigoted platform to advocate for “White civil rights” in East Palestine.

When the Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, and as evacuations began and shelter-in-place orders were issued, residents quickly became understandably concerned about the health risks posed by burning materials such as vinyl chloride. Some also reported that large numbers of fish had died in nearby creeks and expressed alarm about the quality of their local air and water. Public health officials and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) addressed citizens’ concerns, testing both air and water for contamination. Officials have said that current levels of contaminants are safe, but they will continue to offer regular monitoring. It is worth noting that the EPA’s handling of previous environmental disasters, from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to the Colorado Gold King Mine spill, has not inspired confidence or trust, and questioning the government response in East Palestine does not equate to conspiratorial thinking.

The Aftermath
Immediately following the derailment, a raft of false and misleading claims emerged; a story about a journalist being removed from a press conference gained traction on social media, accompanied by suggestions that officials were trying to silence the press, a claim refuted by fact checkers. 

While much of the misinformation has come from well-meaning individuals concerned about environmental safety, extremists and conspiracy theorists have capitalized on the panic by alleging the derailment was a concerted attack on white Americans and an ominous indicator of future coordinated attacks on infrastructure. Popular QAnon influencers, for example, promoted theories about the derailment being part of a nefarious government plan, citing unrelated derailments across the country as evidence.

Meanwhile, the white supremacist National Justice Party is co-opting the tragedy in East Palestine and using public outrage and confusion about the incident to advance their claims that the political system is in place to disadvantage and overlook white people.