(Updated version provided by Ohio State College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences July 28, 2023.)
By Tracy Turner
COLUMBUS, Ohio–From the moment the train derailed Friday night Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, resulting in a toxic chemical release and massive fire that forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes, the calls from local farmers and producers for help began flooding into the Ohio State University Extension office in Columbiana County.
Impacted families were told to evacuate due to the release of some of the train’s transported chemicals including vinyl chloride, and the combusting chemical products from the initial burning tank cars followed by a controlled burn, into the air, on to the soil and into surface water.
“We’ve been told to evacuate, but where can we take our livestock?” was among the first questions posed by farmers and producers to Haley Shoemaker, educator, OSU Extension, agriculture and natural resources (ANR), Columbiana and Mahoning counties. OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES).
“Producers wanted to know if their pastures would be suitable for spring livestock grazing and had questions about growing crops already in the ground as a result of the derailment,” Shoemaker said. “There was a lot of uncertainty that was driving many of the questions that we received in the hours, days, and weeks after the derailment.”
In response, CFAES immediately implemented its Crisis Rapid Response Team, which brings together experts from CFAES including OSU Extension. The team worked with families in East Palestine to “get science in the picture so that we could answer questions factually using the data available to us,” Shoemaker said.
“There was much speculation in the beginning, so our goal was to listen to the needs of the residents of East Palestine, understanding that there would be a lot of learning experiences throughout the response, and that the best way that would happen was by utilizing CFAES expert recommendations based on research and scientific methods, in addition to collaborating with local, state, and national agencies,” she said.
One of the first things the team did was assist with identifying temporary housing for livestock and help direct producers to those locations in Columbiana and neighboring counties. The team also worked to:
- develop fact-based information sheets to help address ongoing questions from partners, local farmers, and community members.
- validate processes and actions being taken by partner agencies and organizations.
- serve as a local, trusted source of unbiased, scientific authority while partnering to keep the many agencies informed of all activities associated in response to the derailment.
- serve as the first point of contact on a frequent basis for concerned community members and producers, and to connect those concerns to partners for a unified response.
- identify and engage faculty to review the Norfolk Southern remediation plan for soil testing and provide comments to the Ohio Department of Agriculture (ODA).
- develop a fact sheet that provided points of contact and immediate response FAQs.
- develop a plant tissue-sampling protocol with ODA, which is being implemented outside of the one-mile derailment zone.
- serve as a resource to the community by assisting in the discussion of soil-sampling protocols and interpretation of results.
- provide mental health support and resources.
- evaluate economic and environmental impacts.
The CFAES Crisis Rapid Response Team for East Palestine includes CFAES and OSU Extension staff, scientists and researchers, and other experts across Ohio State. The team is just one example of collaboration, sharing expertise for a greater impact. As part of Ohio State’s land-grant mission, CFAES is dedicated to integrating research, teaching, and outreach to improve the food and agricultural sectors, the environment, and the quality of people’s lives.
“We’re here to serve Ohio by providing the best research-based information they need to make informed decisions as they deal with the impact of the derailment,” said Sam Custer, OSU Extension interim assistant director, ANR. “Our goal is to be able to be nimble and respond quickly to crisis-level events to bring people across the college and university to be able to respond to emergent situations.
“We’re also coordinating and collaborating with local, state, and federal agencies and organizations, and providing elected officials’ up-to-date information on what we’re finding and recommending.”
The CFAES Crisis Rapid Response Team for East Palestine was honored last week with the 2023 Spirit of the Land-Grant Award. The award was initiated during CFAES’ sesquicentennial year to celebrate land-grant heroes. The award recognizes individuals who support, exemplify, or create opportunities that embody CFAES’ values and personify the college’s land-grant DNA, said Cathann A. Kress, Ohio State vice president for agricultural administration and CFAES dean.
“The recipients of the Spirit of the Land-Grant Award remind us of the ideals that we aspire to attain and to embody,” Kress said. “The CFAES Crisis Rapid Response Team for East Palestine embodies the true essence of our land-grant DNA. I want to thank them for their efforts in response to the East Palestine train derailment. The work that the response team did shows the true credibility and response of our land-grant system.”
In addition to Shoemaker and Custer, the team includes:
- Jeff Hattey, a professor of soil science and state Extension specialist in soil management, who provided the first research-based soil science response and co-led the on-site work with Shoemaker.
- Devin Peterson, a distinguished professor in the CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology (FST), alongside Matt Teegarden, FST senior researcher. The FST lab team conducted plant and fish tissue sample analysis, which was provided to landowners, ODA, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Adam Ward, CFAES director of government affairs, who kept government agencies informed on what the team was doing and helped answer the agencies’ questions.
- Heather Raymond, director of the CFAES Water Quality Initiative, who worked as the team’s research-based water expert and assisted in connections with Ohio EPA.
- Maurice Eastridge, a professor and an OSU Extension dairy specialist in the CFAES Department of Animal Sciences, who created an infographic, and was involved in agricultural response discussions.
- Dee Jepsen, state leader, OSU Extension Agricultural Safety and Health Program, who shared her support through grant-writing.
- Jason Hartschuh, OSU Extension field specialist, dairy management, and precision livestock, who assisted with the creation of the East Palestine Train Derailment FAQ.
- Michael Bisesi, a professor of environmental health sciences and vice dean for academic affairs and academic administration with Ohio State’s College of Public Health. His presence and objective approach to the public health conversation was crucial.
- Karen Chou, an associate professor of animal sciences at Michigan State University, who graciously offered her time and expertise in toxicology.
- Eric Barrett, area leader and OSU Extension educator, who provided leadership to Shoemaker and OSU Extension county workers.
In addition, the CFAES Crisis Rapid Response Team for East Palestine worked in alignment with local agencies and organizations responsible for the regulatory aspects of the derailment, including the Ohio EPA, the U.S. EPA, the ODA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Columbiana County Soil & Water Conservation District, the Ohio Emergency Management Agency, Columbiana County Emergency Management Agency, the Ohio State Farm Service Agency, and the Ohio Farm Bureau.
“We’re appreciative of Dean Kress and CFAES for recognizing the CFAES Crisis Rapid Response Team for East Palestine for the work done in responding to the needs of the people of East Palestine,” Custer said. “It’s our mission to serve Ohioans and to be able to respond to the questions and the needs they have.”
And the team’s work in East Palestine isn’t over.
“It’s going to be a long-term response,” Shoemaker said. “We have more data now that is helping us move forward and learn what needs to be done in the future. We’re going to be here for the long haul and are working with the community to make sure that their needs are met now and in the future.”
For example, the plant tissue results have been able to provide impacted farmers and producers confidence in their crops to allow for conversations with consumers and end-product marketers while providing data that show the crops are not contaminated, Shoemaker said.
“We’ve been able to interpret and show the data on the safety of the area’s agricultural products,” she said. “As the situation evolves, we will work to provide additional guidance and educational materials regarding areas such as plant tissue test results and consumer confidence.
“We’ve been fortunate to work with community partners and the greater East Palestine community through town halls and public meetings. Being able to see people work together and move toward progress has been amazing. It’s been an honor to work with the community, to be here to listen, to be a source of scientific information. This is truly a resilient community, and being able to serve them is something we don’t take for granted.”
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