Politicians Are Drinking the Water in East Palestine to ‘Prove’ It’s Safe

“It’s pretty good water.”
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine

Politicians from Ohio and elsewhere are trying to “prove” the water in East Palestine is safe enough to drink—by chugging it themselves.

More than two weeks after a massive Norfolk Southern freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed, spilling five rail cars of toxic vinyl chloride and forcing local agencies to light a “controlled burn” to avoid an explosion, politicians have started flocking into town for a performative taste test.


Meanwhile, residents of East Palestine, Ohio are reporting dead fish and animals, what appears to be an oily sheen in nearby creeks and waterways, and symptoms such as rashes, sore throats, and headaches.

On Tuesday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Rep. Bill Johnson of Ohio, and Michael Regan, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, drank the water in East Palestine in an attempt to show it’s safe. 

“It’s pretty good water,” Regan said. 

On Friday, Johnson and Republican Lt. Gov. Jon Husted drank water from the tap alongside town officials and the chief of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, Anne Vogel. Husted later posted a video on his Twitter account and said: “The water is safe and [East Palestine officials] are working around the clock to keep it that way.”

“Enjoying a glass of clean water in East Palestine,” the Ohio EPA tweeted Friday. 

A day before Husted and Johnson drank the water, Rep. Troy Nehls — a Republican who represents a Texas district more than 1,300 miles away from East Palestine — posted a video to Twitter of himself drinking the water from a tap in East Palestine after having what he called “great meetings” with officials from Norfolk Southern and the local government. 


“The drinking water within this municipality is safe to drink,” Nehls said. “There are no issues with the public water in the city.” 

A Norfolk Southern train called 32N, which some railroad workers knew colloquially as “32 Nasty” due to its cargo and the way that cargo was arranged on the train, derailed just outside of East Palestine on Feb. 3. Some of the train cars that derailed were carrying vinyl chloride, a chemical used in the manufacturing of plastic products such as pipes. Fearing a catastrophic explosion following the derailment, officials decided to burn the vinyl chloride in what they termed a “controlled release.”

The state and federal response to the derailment and its aftermath has come under mounting bipartisan criticism. Though Regan said last week the air and water in East Palestine is safe, Ohio Democratic Sen . Sherrod Brown and Republican Sen. J.D. Vance sent a letter to Regan and Vogel Saturday asking if their respective agencies or Norfolk Southern were monitoring the air for dioxins—a carcinogenic compound released when polyvinyl chloride burns. 


Repeated exposure to vinyl chloride is associated with increased risk of liver, brain, and lung cancer as well as leukemia lymphoma, according to the National Cancer Institute

“We know when polyvinyl chloride burns it creates dioxins,” Ted Shettler, the science director at the environmental nonprofit Science and Environmental Health Network, told STAT News Tuesday. “I’m certain from the view of that black smoke plume that it was a witch’s brew of chemicals on fire, and I’m quite certain dioxins would be among them.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Norfolk Southern to “conduct all necessary actions associated with the cleanup,” and said it would step in and perform the work at triple the cost to Norfolk Southern — which made nearly $5 billion in profits from railway operations last year — if the company does not comply. 

But worries are persistent. Thousands of fish in the area have died since the derailment earlier this month, and there have been unconfirmed reports of the deaths of some nonaquatic animals. Some East Palestine residents have reported health issues such as rashes, sore throats, headaches, and more, and on Tuesday, the state opened up a health clinic for residents who think those symptoms are linked to the derailment. 


Vance posted a video to Twitter last week of himself scraping a creek bed with a stick, revealing a multicolor sheen in the water afterwards. Vance also said there were dead worms and fish in the creek. “This is disgusting,” Vance said. “The fact that these chemicals are still seeping into the ground is an insult to the people who live in East Palestine.”

The decision to drink tap water to prove it’s safe repeats an infamous move by former President Barack Obama in Flint, Michigan. “This is not a stunt,” Obama said at the time.

But some Flint residents were still waiting on their lead pipes to be replaced three years after that work was required to be finished under a legal settlement, the nonprofit news outlet Bridge Michigan reported earlier this month. And an audit by the EPA Office of Inspector General last year said the agency’s failures to implement recommendations in the aftermath of the the Flint water crisis meant that “residents whose homes are served by lead service lines may continue to be exposed to lead in drinking water.”

“Without complete oversight of the drinking water program, the public’s health is still at risk from lead in drinking water,” that audit said.