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The Public Is Most Likely to Trust the EPA to Handle Environmental Disasters Like the East Palestine Derailment

A slim majority believes private companies involved in environmental disasters are trustworthy to handle the cleanup
March 30, 2023 at 5:00 am UTC

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As the Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog begins an internal investigation into the handling of the Norfolk Southern Corp. train derailment last month that caused a toxic disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, a new Morning Consult survey finds that the U.S. public is much more likely to trust the EPA to handle environmental disasters than the private companies responsible for them.

EPA Garners the Most Trust From Americans to Handle Environmental Disasters

Respondents who said they trust the following institutions to handle environmental disasters such as oil and toxic chemical spills ...
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Survey conducted March 11-12, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,201 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

Public most likely to blame companies in the event of environmental disasters

  • Almost 7 in 10 adults said they have at least some trust in the EPA to handle environmental disasters, including roughly a quarter who said they have “a lot” of trust in the agency. Additionally, at least 3 in 5 adults said they have trust in the National Transportation Safety Board and local and state government agencies to handle such disasters.
  • Democrats are more likely than Republicans to hold trust in the EPA to respond to environmental disasters, at 80% and 62%, respectively. 
  • The bulk of the public (70%) said private companies involved in environmental incidents shoulder the blame, including 1 in 3 who said the companies deserve “a lot” of the blame. About 3 in 5 adults blame the EPA for an environmental disaster, though just 18% said the agency shoulders “a lot” of the blame.
  • Nearly 3 in 4 adults have seen, read or heard something about the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, including about 1 in 3 who have heard “a lot.”

The Public Thinks Private Companies Involved in Environmental Disasters Shoulder Most of the Blame

Respondents who said they believe the following institutions are to blame in the event of an environmental disaster ...
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Survey conducted March 11-12, 2023, among a representative sample of 2,201 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points. Figures may not add up to 100% due to rounding.

EPA, Norfolk Southern face criticism from residents over cleanup efforts

The Feb. 3 derailment of a Norfolk Southern train along the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line has grabbed headlines for the past two months, as residents scramble to figure out what to do next and local, state and federal officials sift through the best ways to prevent another disaster.

The response effort has faced intense criticism from East Palestine residents and public health advocates, who claim the EPA and Norfolk Southern failed to protect residents quickly after the derailment, which has raised concerns about air, water and soil contamination in the area following the release and controlled burn of toxic chemicals by the company.

The EPA told residents it was safe to return to their homes about a week after the derailment, which some residents say was too soon. Some residents also said they felt sick after returning home, as did some workers involved in the cleanup. 

The EPA’s office of inspector general, which has launched an investigation into the agency’s handling of the response, said it will “conduct interviews, gather data, and analyze a variety of issues, including hazardous waste disposal, air and water monitoring, soil and sediment sampling, and risk communication” as part of the investigation. 

Meanwhile, Norfolk Southern Chief Executive Alan Shaw was the subject of scrutiny in a Senate hearing earlier this month for the company’s handling of the derailment cleanup, as the company faces a number of lawsuits from the state of Ohio and East Palestine residents and possible cleanup fines from the EPA. Shaw told lawmakers he and the company “won't be finished until we make it right.”

The March 11-12, 2023, survey was conducted among a representative sample of 2,201 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

A headshot photograph of Julia Martinez
Julia Martinez
Energy & Auto Analyst

Julia Martinez previously worked at Morning Consult as an energy & auto analyst on the Industry Intelligence team.

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