Posts misleadingly share Ohio River footage after train derailment

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Social media users claim aerial footage of the Ohio River shows chemicals released after a train derailment in the US state in early February 2023. This is unproven; the clip was taken 100 miles away in an area where officials say any contamination has dissipated, and environmental experts told AFP the footage appears to show sediment from heavy rainfall.

"What the News isn't talking about , this is our drone footage 100 miles downstream from East Palestine OH train crash," says a February 18, 2023 Facebook post with a video of what appears to be drone footage on a smartphone. "2-18-23 OHIO RIVER."

The post is one of several from an Ohio-based couple suggesting that toxic elements from the train accident have migrated far downstream.

"100 miles South of East Pal," says another February 18 post, which includes footage of a muddy river.

The next day, a local news page published one of the images, gathering 14,000 shares.

"So awful!! The problem is now far reaching and going to hurt many ... now that this stuff is flowing through the Ohio river," says a Facebook post sharing the picture of brown water. "Now that it's polluted, you shouldn't eat the fish either. I wouldn't advise it."

Screenshot of a Facebook post taken February 28, 2023
Screenshot of a Facebook post taken March 1, 2023



The image also circulated on Twitter.

The posts come after a February 3 train derailment near East Palestine, Ohio resulted in a massive fire and the release of toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride, a colorless gas that the US National Cancer Institute has deemed carcinogenic, into the soil, air and water. Thousands of residents were evacuated as authorities assessed the danger, and the US government ordered Norfolk Southern -- the company whose trains carried the toxic cargo -- to pay the cleanup cost.

Videos taken in East Palestine after the train crash appeared to show rainbow-colored vinyl chloride contamination in local creeks. Authorities said about 3,500 small fish were killed.

But the footage shared online is different -- and officials say recent water testing has found no contaminants from the accident in the Ohio River.

Footage from Newport, Ohio

AFP identified the location of the drone video shared online by analyzing details in the photos and information provided in the posts.

Screenshot of a Facebook video taken February 28, 2023, with elements outlined by AFP
Screenshot taken from Google Maps on February 28, 2023, with elements outlined by AFP



Satellite images from Google Maps indicate the footage shows the Ohio River near The Jug, a waterfront restaurant in Newport, Ohio.

Newport is about 100 miles away from East Palestine. While the latter is not on the Ohio River, which flows from western Pennsylvania to the southern tip of Illinois, it is in the watershed.

But the footage likely shows sediment flowing into the Ohio River from a stream that does not pass through East Palestine, experts told AFP.

"It appears the muddy line of water in the Ohio River can be traced back to Middle Island Creek (West Virginia)," said Rich Cogen co-founder of the Ohio River Foundation, an environmental nonprofit. "Thus, there appears to be no connection to waters flowing down from East Palestine and the muddy appearance of the Ohio River."

Stream runoff

Experts told AFP the photos and videos appear to show sediment in the Ohio River -- possibly from heavy rainfall.

Natalie Kruse-Daniels, director of the Environmental Studies Program at Ohio University, said in a February 28 email that the brown water in the footage is "most likely sediment either from a storm or from an engine or other disturbance stirring up sediments and them flowing downstream."

The National Weather Service (NWS) said "heavy rainfall and flooding" affected swaths of West Virginia and southern Ohio between February 16 and 17 -- just days before the drone footage was taken and published on Facebook. Newport received around one inch of rain, according to the NWS, while areas of neighboring West Virginia received more.

Charles Shobe, assistant professor of geology at West Virginia University, told AFP the visual effect seen in the photos and videos "is commonly caused" by rainfall. He said while one stream may become muddy due to soil erosion, another may experience less precipitation and subsequent erosion.

"Where the two streams meet, the waters do not mix instantaneously," Shobe said in a February 27 email. "So we often observe some length of the combined river over which we see muddy water from one stream flowing alongside, and slowly mixing with, the less muddy water from the other stream."

NASA has published similar images of such discoloration in the Ohio River. However, Shobe cautioned that images alone are not enough to rule out pollution.

"One would certainly need additional evidence to attribute the color of the water pictured to any specific cause," he said.

Water sample testing

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in coordination with local agencies, has collected and tested surface water in several creeks near East Palestine and downstream to the Ohio River.

Samples taken by the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) on February 12 found elevated levels of butyl acrylate at The Jug's dock.

In this file photo taken February 4, 2023, smoke rises from a derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio ( AFP / DUSTIN FRANZ)

Butyl acrylate is "a clear colorless liquid with a sharp characteristic odor" that is used for making paint, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The compound is "very slightly soluble in water and somewhat less dense than water," the agency says on its website.

The train that derailed in East Palestine was carrying butyl acrylate. But James Lee, media relations manager for the Ohio branch of the EPA, told AFP in a February 23 email that recent ORSANCO sampling shows "any contamination that made it into the Ohio River has dissipated and is no longer being detected."

The EPA added in a March 1 statement that testing results indicate East Palestine's drinking water is safe.

AFP has fact-checked other misinformation about the Ohio train wreck here and here.