Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio uttered a statement in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday that reflected what several people in East Palestine have been saying for months: The small Ohio town “very well may have been poisoned to facilitate the rapid movement of freight.”

Vance, a Republican, made his statement during a Senate hearing in which he and Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, discussed the controlled burn of vinyl chloride that occurred on Feb. 6, 2023, three days after a fiery Norfolk Southern train derailment on the east side of East Palestine.

That controlled burn, Vance reminded those at the hearing, sent a mushroom cloud of thick black smoke over the town. Weather conditions that day acted as a lid that spread the cloud over the entire region. Ever since, a number of residents have reported symptoms they attribute to toxic poisoning. Those symptoms include nosebleeds, rashes, headaches, aching teeth and vomiting.

Local and state officials at the time were under tremendous pressure to make a decision whether to authorize the burn. East Palestine Fire Chief Keith Drabick testified last year that he was given 13 minutes to make what had been painted as a life-or-death choice.

Homendy said Drabick and other officials in the room were given incomplete information while wrestling with the decision.

At issue was whether the vinyl chloride in a few of the derailed tank cars was heating up to a degree that would trigger a chemical reaction called polymerization and thus cause a catastrophic explosion. Officials announced this was a possibility on Feb. 5, two days after the derailment, and ordered an evacuation. That same day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued a statement indicating the tanker cars could explode “with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling more than a mile.” Residents quickly fled the area, some wondering whether they would ever be able to return.

The following day, more than a million pounds of vinyl chloride was drained from the rail cars and into a ditch, then set on fire.

At the Wednesday hearing, Homendy indicated there really was no threat of explosion. The cars were in fact cooling down, not heating up. One particular tank car that concerned officials had, in fact, been cooling for 22 hours.

Experts for the chemical company OxyVinyls knew the tanker cars would not explode and relayed this news to Norfolk Southern’s contractors. However, those experts were not included in the meeting in which officials discussed the controlled burn.

“This is an extraordinary finding,” Vance said. “We were told effectively there were two bad options: the controlled burn or the uncontrolled explosion. And it seems based on data we have there was not a ton of reason to do the controlled burn, and of course that is what spread toxic chemicals all over the community and the surrounding region.”

Homendy said there was, indeed, another option: “Let it cool down. It was cooling down.”

East Palestine residents say trains began moving along the repaired railroad tracks shortly after the controlled burn.

“When you have an unnecessary uncontrolled burn that poisoned a lot of people, that then led to the rapid transit of train traffic, a lot of people, including me, are wondering, did they do this not because it was necessary but because it allowed them to move traffic and freight more quickly?” Vance said.

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at

Steve Mellon

Steve is a photojournalist and writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he is currently on strike and working as a Union Progress co-editor. Reach him at