Gary Stevenson, the mayor of Paulsboro, New Jersey, is still troubled by the disastrous messaging that surrounded a dangerous train derailment in his town more than a decade ago. The communications meltdown now troubling Norfolk Southern Corp. is worse.
Just like East Palestine, Ohio, which is coming to terms with the aftermath of a Feb. 3 derailment, Paulsboro was the site of a train that veered off the tracks. Both locomotives were hauling toxic vinyl chloride and each unleashed the chemicals over small towns. Residents of those places were then left equally confused by mixed messages and unanswered questions.
In the decade since the Paulsboro crash, social media use has only become more popular, and those who use it to spread misinformation have fine-tuned their skills and reach. So when Norfolk Southern initially kept a low profile after the derailment, and then skipped a chance to meet the town’s residents face-to-face, conspiracy theorists and those with political agendas filled the void.
That makes the job of restoring Norfolk Southern’s reputation more difficult, and creates distrust in federal and location institutions that could linger long after the crisis is gone.
“Unfortunately, many of the communication errors that were made happened right at the very start of the response and have really just laid this groundwork for this widespread misinformation,” said Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at Massachusetts Maritime Academy. “Once you lose the public trust, it is incredibly difficult to ever gain that back.”
The citizens of East Palestine, a rural town of less than 5,000, were winding down for the evening when the Norfolk Southern train derailed at about 9 p.m. local time earlier this month. About a quarter of the train’s 150 cars went off course, creating a fiery crash. Soon, local law enforcement was asking befuddled residents within one mile of the incident to evacuate.
By Feb. 5, Norfolk Southern had put out only two paragraphs about the crash, saying the National Transportation Safety Board would provide incident updates and that it had set up a community resource center. The NTSB hosted two short press briefings around the same time, and said they were still looking into what happened and what danger people were in.
Some area residents were unsure of how to respond, and repeatedly refused to leave their homes. The sheriff of Columbiana County — which includes East Palestine — took to Facebook to threaten them with arrest. Hundreds responded furiously. One person called the police “tyrants.”
The communication problems compounded when videos of polluted water, black clouds and dead fish went viral on Twitter and TikTok. The US Environmental Protection Agency assured residents, despite the evacuation order, there was no serious threat to livestock or humans and promised to continue testing the air and water.
Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Officer Alan Shaw visited East Palestine personally and put out an open letter assuring the company would “help make things right.” The company started a $1 million fund for the community as a “down payment” and has provided free bottled water to whoever wants it.
People only got more furious. The crash has become a major talking point on network news. It’s been repeatedly compared to Chernobyl, the deadly 1986 nuclear facility explosion in Ukraine. Far-left and far-right groups used the internet to spread wild theories about environmental catastrophes and coverups. Rumors of dead pets and chickens ran amok.
Federal and local officials set up a town hall on Thursday so East Palestine residents could get accurate information. Norfolk Southern representatives were invited but didn’t attend, citing safety risks. Local police then disputed company personnel faced any threats, creating even more anger and confusion.
Norfolk Southern didn’t provide a comment in response to questions about its messaging.
Fortunately, the incident didn’t kill any humans and officials will continue to monitor whether the air and drinking water are safe. Meanwhile the financial toll is already stacking up. Norfolk Southern shares have dropped 10% since Feb. 3 and it may face $100 million in liabilities over the calamity, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Holly Froum and Lee Klaskow.
The greatest threat to East Palestine could be the reticence residents have to return. That’s what happened to Paulsboro when a bridge collapsed and caused a Conrail train to derail there more than 10 years ago. A thick cloud of chemicals engulfed the town, and residents feared the health effects.
Many of those fears never materialized, even for Stevenson, who said he was rocked out of bed when some of the rail cars hit his house. He remembers barely being able to see his own hands in front of him, but he has remained healthy in followup testing. People still worried about their safety. Some moved away and businesses were forced to close, Stevenson said.
The only thing that might help now is “radical transparency,” more independent investigators and to better prepare those who must respond to incidents like this, according to Montano.
“The local responders were properly trained, but we were never really trained to handle this stuff,” said Stevenson, who was a deputy fire chief of Paulsboro at the time. “It was just a disaster.”