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This photo taken with a drone Feb. 9, 2023, shows the cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP) This photo taken with a drone Feb. 9, 2023, shows the cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP)

This photo taken with a drone Feb. 9, 2023, shows the cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP)

Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone February 18, 2023

No evidence of foul play in Ohio train derailment, other incidents mentioned in a Facebook post

If Your Time is short

  • The National Transportation Safety Board said there’s no evidence of foul play or sabotage in the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

  • We found no evidence of sabotage in six other derailments this month or signs that they posed threats from hazardous materials.

  • A truck that spilled chemicals in Arizona was an accident, and there is no long-term threat from the spill, officials said. A fire that burned plastic planters in Florida is still being investigated, but fire officials said it’s likely a propane tank exploded. There were no hazardous materials released, officials said.

The derailment of a train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, combined with other accidents around the country, have some social media users claiming they are acts of ecological sabotage.

On Feb. 3, dozens of cars on a Norfolk Southern Railway train derailed in a small town near Ohio’s northeast border with Pennsylvania. Fearful that five cars containing vinyl chloride would explode, officials decided to release and burn the chemical, sending plumes of black smoke into the air and leaving residents concerned about the long-term effects on their health

That wasn’t the only incident involving trains or toxic chemicals this month, but we found no evidence that any of them, including in East Palestine, were acts of sabotage. 

"Seven ecological disasters in less than 2 weeks. The ramifications will impact Americans’ food, water and health for decades to come," read text in an image shared on Facebook Feb. 16. "We are under attack."

The image is a screenshot of a Feb. 16 tweet that cites five train derailments across the country, a truck spill (the post didn’t specify where, but it’s likely a reference to a recent incident in Tucson, Arizona) and a large fire burning plastic in Florida. The caption on the Facebook post added a sixth derailment, this one in Van Buren Township, Michigan. "This is no coincidence," the caption read.

A spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board told PolitiFact on Feb. 17 that there are no signs of sabotage or foul play in the Feb. 3 Ohio derailment.

The exact cause is still being investigated, but the board said in a Feb. 14 update that investigators have identified the railcar that started the derailment. Video from a nearby residence showed "what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment," the update said. A preliminary report is due in two weeks, and a final report could take up to two years.

Train derailments are not unusual. Federal data from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and Federal Railroad Administration shows an average of 1,705 train derailments per year from 1990 to 2021. 

There were six other derailments aside from in Ohio so far this month. Most were minor, and we’ve found no evidence that they were anything but accidents. Here’s what we know about those incidents:

  • Feb. 1: There were no injuries, leaks or spills after a late-night freight train derailment in southwest Detroit, according to the Detroit Free Press. All of the train cars were empty and the cause is being investigated.

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  • Feb. 1: A freight train went off the tracks in Talladega County, Alabama. One of the four cars that derailed was leaking limestone slurry, but officials said there was no danger or hazardous materials threat, according to NBC affiliate WVTM-TV.

  • Feb. 4: A commuter rail train with about 100 passengers on board came off the tracks near Philadelphia. No one was injured. Crews found and repaired a piece of broken track, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

  • Feb. 13: There were no reported injuries, leaks or spills after a minor derailment in Enoree, South Carolina, the Post and Courier reported.

  • Feb. 13: Twenty-one cars of a Union Pacific Freight train derailed after a collision with an 18-wheel truck in Splendora, Texas, which is 38 miles north of Houston. About 100 gallons of diesel fuel spilled from the truck, and police said "there were no major chemicals to be concerned about" on the train — just household chemicals for retail purposes, according to Houston Public Media.

  • Feb. 16: Another Northfolk Southern Railway freight train derailed in Van Buren Township, Michigan, with about 30 cars going off the track, USA Today reported. No hazardous materials were released, township officials said. The cause is being investigated.

Personnel work Feb. 14, 2023, to control the hazardous material leak on Interstate 10 near Tucson, Ariz., after a deadly crash caused a hazardous material leak and forced evacuations nearby. (Tucson Fire Department)

As for the other two incidents referenced in the Facebook post, one was ruled accidental, and the other is under investigation but appears to be an accident:

  • Feb. 14: The truck spill referred to in the Facebook post is likely the one in Tucson, Arizona, where a truck overturned on Interstate 10, killing its driver and spilling liquid nitric acid. The spill prompted the temporary evacuation of nearby residents, The Associated Press reported. At a Feb. 16 news conference, officials said the driver in the single-vehicle crash appeared to drift into the median before his truck overturned. No future environmental impact is expected from the spill, officials said.

  • Feb. 16: A massive early morning fire broke out at a plant nursery supply company in Osceola County, Florida. Pallets of plastic pots caught fire, sending plumes of smoke into the air, the Orlando Sentinel reported. A county spokesperson told the Sentinel that there were no hazardous materials released. The cause of the blaze is still under investigation by the State Fire Marshal, the Osceola County Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services said in a Feb. 16 Facebook post. A fire rescue spokesperson told Orlando’s WFTV-TV that a propane tank likely exploded. We reached out to the state fire marshal and Osceola County Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services for comment, but didn’t immediately hear back.

Our ruling

A Facebook post said that the Ohio train derailment and six other "ecological disasters" show that the U.S. is "under attack."

The National Transportation Safety Board said foul play or sabotage is not suspected in the Ohio incident. Although a preliminary report has not been issued, officials believe an equipment failure was likely the cause.

We found no evidence that any of the other incidents cited in the Facebook post were anything but accidents. None of them were serious enough to be considered "ecological disasters." We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Facebook post, Feb. 16, 2023

Tweet, Feb. 16, 2023

Email exchange with National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson, Feb. 17, 2023

National Transportation Safety Board, "NTSB Issues Investigative Update on Ohio Train Derailment," Feb. 14, 2023

National Transportation Safety Board, "NTSB Media Brief 2: Norfolk Southern Freight Train Derailment," Feb. 5, 2023

Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Train fatalities, injuries, and accidents by type of accidents, accessed Feb. 14, 2023

USA Today, "Norfolk Southern train derails in southeast Michigan; investigation ongoing," Feb. 16, 2023

Van Buren Township Public Safety, Facebook post, Feb. 16, 2023

Houston Public Media, "Houston-area crash between truck, Union Pacific train kills driver, derails 20-plus rail cars," Feb. 13, 2023

Post and Courier, "No injuries in minor train derailment in Spartanburg County," Feb. 13, 2023

WVTM-13, "Neighborhood road closed due to train derailment in Talladega County," Feb. 1, 2023

Detroit Free Press, "Detroit-Chicago Amtrak routes canceled through Friday after CN freight train derails," Feb. 1, 2023

Philadelphia Inquirer, "SEPTA El train derailed in Old City," Feb. 5, 2023

USA Today, "Truck spills hazardous material in Tucson, Arizona, shutting down highway," Feb. 15, 2023

Arizona Department of Public Safety, "Tucson I-10 Hazardous Material Briefing," Feb. 16, 2023

Arizona Department of Public Safety, "Collision and hazardous materials spill on Interstate 10 in Tucson," accessed Feb. 17, 2023

The Associated Press, "Hazardous spill closes Tucson interstate, forces evacuation," Feb. 14, 2023

Newsweek, "How Common Are Train Derailments? More Than 6 Have Crashed This Month," Feb. 16, 2023

WFTV-9, "Thousands of plastic planters burn in massive blaze at Osceola County nursery supply company," Feb. 16, 2023

The Orlando Sentinel, "Massive fire breaks out overnight at Osceola County nursery," Feb. 16, 2023

Osceola County Fire Rescue and EMS, Facebook post, Feb. 16, 2023

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No evidence of foul play in Ohio train derailment, other incidents mentioned in a Facebook post

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