Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see here? Join the mailing list and receive more like this in your inbox each week.
Roughly three weeks ago, a train carrying synthetic compounds used to make plastic products derailed in rural East Palestine, Ohio, leaking chemicals into the soil, water, and air. East Palestine residents have reported headaches and dizziness, and some fear for their long-term health as the effects of this disaster remain largely unknown.
While this story may not have gotten much national coverage immediately after the wreck, the media has jumped all over it in the weeks after, and phrases like “no one is talking about the East Palestine disaster” that blossomed on social media have become both cliché and paradoxical.
As journalist Molly Taft put it succinctly in this Gizmodo article, “one of the reasons the February 3 crash received delayed national attention is the dearth of local reporters on the ground to chase down stories and amplify them.” Three newspapers serve rural Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, and none of them have environmental reporters, according to Taft’s article. Even so, very solid reporting came from those local newspapers, many of which were on the ground from the beginning, talking about the disaster all along.
I found out about the wreck about a week and a half after it happened, and just like many people watching the story unfold from afar, I was fascinated and horrified by its magnitude. The pictures really are worth a thousand words: 38 train cars twisted around the railroad tracks, a dramatic plume of black smoke that could be seen from commercial airplanes flying overhead, and water with a rainbow sheen in the nearby creeks, the white bellies of dead fish dotting the surface.
Certainly, this was disastrous, and no wonder it’s made headlines. A fast-moving train carrying hazardous materials that flies off the tracks into a fiery ball of steel and chemicals? Yes, that will grab people’s attention.
But what about all the other disasters rural America faces that go unseen?
The East Palestine wreck provided a dramatic illustration of the damage we humans wreak on the environment and ourselves. It feels more urgent than, say, the slow buildup of coal dust in the lungs that, over time, ravages a person’s body from the inside out; or the long-term effects of drinking lead or nitrate-polluted water that the government refuses to treat.
Most of the time, environmental degradation happens more slowly than the 24 hour news cycle demands. And this is where the danger lies: unlike a trainwreck that is loud and fast and messy, the slow seeping of pesticides or invisible release of methane can be ignored for years. The pictures don’t look as dramatic.
There’s less pressure to do something about a problem that accumulates slowly.
Yet, waiting for years to fix a problem tends to exacerbate that problem. This is especially true for rural areas that are forced to tolerate just as much – if not more – air and water pollution as urban areas. Poor regulation, lack of funding, and aging infrastructure combine to make a perfect, polluted storm in rural areas.
Keeping the nation’s attention on environmental disasters requires effort that many rural communities can’t afford, and thanks to the dearth of local reporters, those disasters often go untold.
East Palestine desperately needs the sustained attention the media has determined it worthy of.
Other rural communities deserve just the same.