By Brianna Gwirtz, OCJ field reporter
It’s been over a month since 38 train cars carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine but farmers in the area are still left with questions and concerns. On March 9, the same day the CEO of Norfolk Southern testified before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, a group of farmers and public officials gathered in a church basement in Salem, Ohio to receive updates and discuss worries.
Following the controlled chemical release and burn, the Environmental Protection Agency, Ohio Department of Agriculture, Ohio State University Extension, the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District and other agricultural agencies have been actively monitoring the situation. Ensuring the food supply remains safe is of utmost importance.
Brian Baldrige, Director of the Ohio Department of Agriculture, summarized the efforts that ODA has already taken to support farmers.
“The Department of Agriculture touches every corner of the state and every facet of the agricultural industry. We want to focus on the impact to you and to the market in this area. We are constantly staying engaged with experts and with the local agencies,” Baldridge said.
The ODA has several divisions that perform inspections to ensure the safety and health of the food chain. Milk and meat inspectors in the area have not seen any concerns since the time of the derailment.
“Meat inspectors are on the harvest floor and also examining live animals for any sign of illness at every harvesting plant in the state. In the last few weeks, meat inspectors local to East Palestine have called the state veterinarian 35 times for concern of a sign of an illness. Of those cases, only five carcasses were condemned and none of the reasons for condemning those carcasses had anything to do with signs of chemical exposure,” said Dennis Summers, DVM, Ohio’s State Veterinarian. “It’s important to note that there have been over a thousand slaughters at the local plants since the derailment.”
Summers shared that veterinarians and the ODA have not witnessed any large numbers of animals with illness, as one may expect. Local dairymen in attendance agreed that even full cattle barns in direct line of the smoke plume have not seen any significant changes in animal health.
“We’ve been working with the Ohio Poultry Association because of broiler producers and backyard flocks in the area. Due to the nature of a bird’s respiratory system, you’re more apt to see respiratory problems in chickens or poultry first than in other animals. At this point, we have not had any concerns with poultry. I would be more concerned about the avian influenza impacting respiratory systems today than the derailment,” Summers said.
The ODA state laboratory has received 11 samples from deceased animals, including a calf and various wildlife species. Necropsies were performed on all the animals.
“We found zero evidence that the cause of death to these animals was because of anything chemical-related. We could not connect their cause of death to the train derailment and subsequent chemical burn,” Baldridge said.
Mark Durno from the Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 turned the attention to the next phase of agricultural screening. The EPA was set begin a two-week soil sampling campaign, starting on March 10. A particular zone has been outlined, including a 1-mile radius around the derailment site, and a 2-mile-wide area just southeast of the derailment site, where EPA models and dust tracks showed a large concentration of ash.
“As we start soil sampling in the area, our two major priorities are to sample from agricultural land and recreational land. We know kids will be out of school soon to enjoy parks and outdoor areas, and we know farmers are about to start planting soon,” Durno said.
The EPA will pull anywhere between 60 to upwards of 300 soil samples, looking primarily for semi-volatile organics and dioxins. If ash or soot is clearly visible, more samples will be taken, including a scrape sample on the surface as well as a sample ranging 1 to 6 inches deep in the soil. If no ash or soot is visible, fewer soil samples will be taken.
This is just the start, Durno said.
“If we get even just one questionable test, we will continue to do more testing. Semi-volatile organics are somewhat common, but it’s a question of whether the levels are of concern or not,” Durno said. “We will have preliminary data in about 7 to 12 days.”
The EPA is continuing to test water sources in the area as well. Durno noted that Sulphur Run and Leslie Run are both still contaminated.
“So far, we have collected 200 water well samples in conjunction with Columbiana County Soil and Water Conservation District. We have established monitoring wells around the derailment site,” Durno said.
In addition, soil piles around the derailment site have been covered with a lining to prevent runoff and dust issues. There was a brief pause in the site excavation to revisit safety protocols, but Durno shared excavation recently resumed.
The round table discussion with the local farmers quickly shifted to a focus on plant health. Kevin Baker, of Baker’s Golden Dairy in New Waterford expressed concern for those farmers who have cover crops, hay, rye or winter wheat already planted.
“Rye is out of dormancy right now,” Baker said. “So, I would think that any growers who had that plume go over their fields would see ash hit the rye before the soil. So, what is that impact?”
The ODA has partnered with Ohio State University scientists to make sure that plants are safe and evaluating the impact on plant health.
“This is the beginning of the process, getting the soil tested,” Baldridge said. “This is a conversation we are having, making sure we can figure out what happens with that plant, how that plant impacts the livestock who consume that grass and so on.”
Because of the nature of the chemicals, specialty tests need to be developed. There is no projected date of when those tests will be ready, but Baldridge ensures they are coming.
“This is 100% a priority to ODA. You can put my name on that, it’s top priority. We want your customers and consumers to feel confident in the safety of your product. We don’t want this to impact the agricultural economy in this area,” Baldridge said.
Currently, labs at Ohio State University and ODA do not have the capacity to turn a high quantity of tests around in a timely manner, especially for tests that are looking for very specific chemicals. The two entities are working together with the EPA to locate private sector labs with specialization in these types of tests.
Multiple farmers in the room expressed the need for data and evidence that their products are safe, and requested that the agencies work together to put a greater focus on communication with the general public on the safety of agricultural products produced in the area since the derailment.
“My farm is five and a half miles from the site. I am not worried about the disaster really, but the people who buy my milk, the consumers and stores are all coming to us and wanting to know, is this safe? I can’t actually definitely say ‘yes,’” Baker said. “We plan to test our crops for all the chemicals somehow. I need proof for my clients, letting them know my milk is as good as ever.”
As the process continues over coming weeks and months, farmers were encouraged to carefully monitor and document the situations.
“If there’s any piece of advice I have for farmers right now it’s that documentation is key. Document everything on your farm. I don’t know if this will be drawn out, but just be sure to document it all,” Baldridge said. “It’s a joint effort amongst all of us. We are in this together.”