After weeks of pressure from farmers, lawmakers and community leaders, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expanded its sampling radius for dioxin and other soil contaminants potentially left over on area farms from the chemical burnoff that followed a massive train derailment, in East Palestine, Ohio.
The federal agency made the announcement March 9, at a roundtable discussion hosted by the Ohio Department of Agriculture at a church in Salem, to discuss local farmers’ concerns ahead of planting season.
“We don’t believe that there have been significant impacts that would increase risk, but we can’t make that determination unless we have data behind us to make those conclusions,” said Mark Durno, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In Pennsylvania, the EPA took soil samples from 15 farms in Beaver and Lawrence County, starting March 9, sampling at farms up to 6 miles away from the derailment site. A plan for expanded testing at farms in Ohio is still in the works. The EPA also beefed up its soil testing of agricultural and recreation sites in the 1-mile radius around the derailment, with plans to collect anywhere from 60 to 300 samples in the next two weeks.
Preliminary results are expected back in seven to 12 days, Durno said. The agency is testing for semi-volatile organic compounds and dioxin, although there was no evidence that dioxin had been released.
“The science does not suggest we have a dioxin problem from this incident, however, we’ve heard very expressly from our local leaders and from the community that they’d like dioxin to be a part of the analysis,” Durno said.
The Ohio and Pennsylvania departments of agriculture have maintained since early on that they believe the crops and livestock in the area around East Palestine should be safe for human consumption. Initial soil and groundwater sampling and testing around the site has shown no elevated levels of contaminants.
The Pennsylvania DEP reported March 10 that the first round of testing of private drinking water wells showed no signs of groundwater contamination. Testing is continuing on surface waters and groundwater in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Thousands of fish and other aquatic life were killed in streams in Ohio impacted by the chemical spill, but tests on other dead wildlife in the area showed “no evidence of chemical toxicity as a cause of death,” the ODNR said in a briefing last week. Necropsy results on a beef calf that died 2 miles away from the site also showed no connection to the derailment.
But still, farmers in the area have concerns and so do their customers, Cliff Wallace, president of the Beaver Lawrence Farm Bureau, in Pennsylvania, told Farm and Dairy. The plume of smoke from the chemical burnoff of vinyl chloride in five of the derailed train cars Feb. 6 descended on farms around the area. Wallace led a grassroots effort to document with video and photo evidence farms that were hit by the smog and soot.
That message was shared in a joint letter from Ohio and Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey and John Fetterman to the USDA and EPA. In the letter, sent March 8, the senators called out the USDA and EPA for not providing guidance to farmers about the safety of their agricultural products.
They requested more testing, guidance and possible financial assistance to farmers around the area ahead of planting season. Even with more information, the senators said consumers may choose not to buy from the region, so farmers might need financial compensation.
“Regardless of the results of any testing and guidance on the safety of crops and products there are those consumers that will still be apprehensive or refuse to purchase agricultural products from the region due to fear of contamination from the incident,” the letter stated. “As such we ask that you begin reviewing what authorities in terms of disaster assistance that could be deployed to address the situation.”
So far, the thought behind testing has been to start with the basics — air, soil and water — and work up from there, into forages and crops consumed by animals and then the animal products themselves.
But, at the meeting, farmers brought up concerns about overwintered crops, like rye, wheat, barley and triticale, that were out of the ground during the chemical burnoff or are springing up now after the mild winter. Some dairy farmers allow their herds to graze cover crops as an early spring forage.
“The rye was out of dormancy when this all took place,” said Kevin Baker, of Baker’s Golden Dairy, in New Waterford, Ohio. “It wasn’t just sitting there. There was a very large plant on our rye. I’d say it probably hit the rye before it even hit the ground. I’m not in the danger zone. I’m west, but I’m concerned about others.”
There are still more questions than answers in terms of what type of testing is needed to show plants and grains are safe, but Brian Baldridge, Ohio Department of Agriculture director, said the department and Ohio State University are working on it together.
The problem is it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what compounds were released and how each one of those compounds will behave when taken up by plant materials.
“This is not a normal test,” Baldridge said.
There’s no timeline for when this testing will be developed or made available, but Baldridge said they’re working as quickly as they can. In the meantime, Baldridge urged farmers to document everything.
Pete Conkle, district administrator for the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District, said that until the last week or so, the impact on overwintered crops was not on anyone’s radar, until Baldridge stepped in on behalf local groups to bring it to the attention of federal agencies.
“We’re starting to see that lack in consumer confidence because of products that might be coming out of that valley. We need to assure everyone that what’s being eaten by that livestock is safe,” Conkle said. “I know it’s not the answer that you guys wanted to hear in terms of how soon … but we’re working towards it.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or email@example.com.)
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