Suddenly, Everyone’s Talking About East Palestine, Ohio

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.

Rural Reading List

There’s just one week left of Black History Month, but that doesn’t mean honoring Black lives ends March 1. Here are some personal favorite reads on rural Black leaders to keep you going through the end of the month.

Q&A: Expanding the Historical Record of Rural Black Southerners

Historian Yulonda Eadie Sano and Cherisse Jones-Branch are the editors for a series of books published by the University of Arkansas Press that focus on rural Black women in the South whose stories have been left out of the region’s historical record.

Q&A: Economic Justice as “an Extension of the Civil Rights Movement” of Today

Bill Bynum is the CEO of HOPE Credit Union, a financial institution that works in “wealth-starved” areas of the Deep South. I talked to Bynum last year about how bringing economic opportunities to areas that have been victim to persistent poverty can change people’s lives.

Meet the Trailblazing Black LGBTQ Official at ‘Ground Zero’ for Climate Justice

Davante Lewis is a newly-elected public service commissioner for Louisiana’s third congressional district who won on a campaign promise to strengthen Louisiana’s electric grid, build solar and wind power, and keep utilities costs low for disenfranchised communities. Lewis is also the first Black openly LGBTQ person to be elected to office in Louisiana.

Commentary: The Historical Disruption of Martin Luther King Jr.

And finally, an article by Daily Yonder’s multimedia editor Xandr Brown on the disruption of Martin Luther King Jr., who was not the law-abiding, peace-peddling model citizen current day interpretations of his work make him out to be. “Nonviolent as he was,” Brown writes, “make no mistake he was a threat.”

One More Thing: Jimmy Carter’s Got Rural Cred

Former President Jimmy Carter is in hospice care at 98-years-old, the oldest age a former president has ever reach, and it’s prompted many people to reminisce on the 39th president’s legacy. 

Arguably our most rural president ever, Carter hailed from Plains, Georgia, where he operated his family’s peanut business before turning to politics. He advocated strongly for the civil rights movement, and Black communities ultimately drove his presidential win in 1977, with an estimated four out of every five Black voters backing him in the election. He only served one term as president, but his career didn’t end there: after losing the 1981 election, he opened the Carter Center, implementing human rights efforts that eventually won him a Nobel Prize in 2002. 

There’s plenty more to be said about the man, but I’ll let him have the last word, from the message he sent with a NASA spacecraft launched the summer of 1977.

We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planets and spacefaring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:

This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination, and our good will in a vast and awesome universe.

[Editor’s Note: President Carter’s words, presumably still traveling through the cosmos, only add to his rural cred — as we often joke at Yonder HQ, space is just about as rural as it gets.]

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