On February 22 2022, a Reddit account shared the following video to r/therewasanattempt (the attempt was, in the words of the post, “by the Ohio Governor and EPA Chief to prove the tap water was safe by pretending to drink it”):
Reddit’s r/therewasanattempt was a good example of the idiom “[it] does what it says on the tin,” alternately described as a subreddit for “all the failed attempts [in] life.” An attached 47-second-long video showed three officials either drinking or pretending to drink tap water in East Palestine, Ohio.
On February 3 2023, a Norfolk Southern trail derailed near East Palestine:
The 2023 Ohio train derailment (also called the East Palestine train derailment) occurred on February 3, 2023, at 8:55 p.m. EST (UTC−5), when a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, United States. The freight train burned for more than two days, and then emergency crews conducted a controlled burn of several railcars at the request of state officials, which released hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the air. As a result, residents within a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) radius were evacuated, and an emergency response was initiated from agencies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. The U.S. federal government sent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael S. Regan to provide assistance on February 16, 2023.
From the get-go, the situation in Ohio was tense; a reporter covering the aftermath was arrested and detained without cause five days after the accident. Questions about causes contributing to the derailment arose, and a viral image of a “controlled burn” and “Ohio death plume” at the site circulated across social media.
On February 23 2023, the New York Times reported that the crew of the Norfolk Southern freight train, which was carrying highly toxic chemicals, “tried to slow the train moments before it derailed in the outskirts of East Palestine.” The end of the story briefly noted that health concerns among residents were at odds with repeated assurances the air and water remained “safe”:
Norfolk Southern, the operator of the train, has also faced the wrath of residents and lawmakers over the derailment … Since the train came off its tracks and officials agreed to burn off some of its hazardous cargo to avoid the threat of an explosion in early February , state and federal environmental officials have emphasized that initial tests have found the water and air to be safe, and did not show significant amounts of toxic chemicals.
But residents continue to report an array of lingering symptoms, including headaches and rashes, and have questioned whether it will be safe to continue to live there in the long term.
A February 21 2023 Fox News article featured the clip shared to Reddit at the top of the page; it identified two of the officials as Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and EPA administrator Michael Regan. It began:
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan volunteered to drink tap water on a visit to a woman’s home in East Palestine, Ohio, personally demonstrating that the water is safe following the Norfolk Southern train derailment on Feb. 3 .
Dozens of rail cars, including 11 carrying toxic chemicals, derailed as the train passed through the town on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Officials conducted a controlled burn of the spilled chemicals to prevent an explosion, releasing large plumes of dangerous chemicals into the air that left foul smells in the area and has reportedly made livestock and pets sick.
EPA officials have said that air and water testing has not found chemicals at a level of concern. However, critics including Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, have called on top officials to drink the water from the area if they really believe it is safe.
On the same day, Ohio outlet WSYX reported on the officials’ visits to homes in East Palestine, indicating that Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown was one of the three men in the clip. The outlet indicated the tap water demonstration occurred on February 21 2023:
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) have both acknowledged the rights of residents to be skeptical.
“We know that the science says that East Palestine is safe, but we also know that residents are very worried,” DeWine said. “They are asking themselves ‘Is my headache just a headache? Or is it a result of the chemical spill? Are other medical symptoms caused by the spill?’ Those are very legitimate questions and residents deserve answers.”
About 4,600 yards of contaminated soil and 1.1 million gallons of contaminated water have been removed, DeWine said at a press conference.
On Tuesday [February 21 2023], state and federal officials themselves demonstrated that the water is safe to drink.
In at least two homes, DeWine, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, and Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) poured glasses of water from taps and took sips on camera.
The Columbus Dispatch explained:
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine on [February 21 2023] visited the homes of East Palestine residents and drank tap water from each in an effort to reassure village residents that their municipal water supply is safe for human consumption.
Joining DeWine were U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Marietta, and first lady Fran DeWine. “That’s good,” Regan said as he swallowed a mouthful of Carolyn Brown’s tap water.
Brown, 79, told the contingent of federal and state officials in her kitchen that town residents “need answers.” “Everybody hears one thing and another thing here and we don’t know who to trust,” she said.
A February 23 2023 BusinessInsider.com article (“Videos show Ohio politicians gingerly sipping tap water near chemical train crash, hoping to convince locals to start drinking it again”) clearly alluded to the skeptical take presented on Reddit as it described the video:
The men seem hesitant to drink at first, perhaps waiting for each other, and none drinks deeply — but the footage isn’t definitive about what happens.
A second video shows the trio visiting another house and doing the same.
“That’s pretty good water,” Regan said after drinking from a red plastic cup.
An embedded tweet included the footage:
On February 23 2023, the most popular post on Reddit’s r/all was from r/therewasanattempt, ” … by the Ohio Governor and EPA Chief to prove the tap water was safe by pretending to drink it.” The attached video was authentic, captured in East Palestine, Ohio, and it showed three officials attempting to reassure locals by drinking tap water. Both the submitter and a news outlet surmised that the officials were hesitant to drink the water, but the clip was neither doctored nor mislabeled.