Questions remain about environmental impact of East Palestine train derailment

The cloud of smoke and chemicals from the controlled burn of vinyl chloride at the East Palestine train derailment, as seen Feb. 6 over Dave Anderson's Echo Valley Farm, in Darlington, Pennsylvania. Anderson took the photo with his drone. (submitted photo)

DARLINGTON, Pa. — Dave Anderson hadn’t planned to leave that night, but then his son came in the house and said things outside had gotten bad. When Anderson went outside, he noticed his tongue was tingling. Days later it would still feel strange, like it had been scalded, he said. 

About 4 miles away in neighboring East Palestine, Ohio, a hazardous chemical vinyl chloride was burning, sending a mushroom cloud of black smoke and unknown toxins high into the air. The chemical had been released purposefully from five derailed train cars and set on fire Feb. 6, a move made to avoid a catastrophic explosion, authorities said.

Over at Anderson’s Echo Valley Farm, in Darlington, the smog from the burn descended over their home and barns. Anderson decided then that his family needed to leave. They stayed at his daughter’s home, in Petersburg, Ohio, for the night.

When he and his wife returned home the next morning, the air had cleared. Their cattle seemed all right, all things considered, although a few had loose stool.

There was one thing, though. A black residue coated the vehicles they’d left behind. Anderson said he wiped the soot off with clean towels and bagged the towels for safekeeping.

“If we want to find out what it is and what just happened, that’s probably the best sample we’re going to get,” Anderson said.

• • •

Though government officials continue to reassure residents of East Palestine and its rural neighbors in Pennsylvania that the air, water and soil are safe after about 50 train cars derailed and some caught fire on Feb. 3, many people have doubts and concerns about the future.

Evacuated residents were allowed to return home two days after the controlled vent and burn. Air quality tests and tests of municipal water sources showed things were safe, but some people experienced health issues, including headaches, rashes and difficulty breathing. There hasn’t been a good answer from authorities to explain why this is going on.

As things quiet down and answers remain elusive, people are thinking about the future, particularly rural residents in the area just outside the area of focus for remediation efforts. What will this derailment and chemical release mean for their health, their animals and their land years from now?

Anderson began calling his state representative and senator’s offices the day after the vent and burn to get information. He called the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. He called the Environmental Protection Agency. He left messages everywhere and received no returned calls. 

“Menus and recordings is all you get,” he said.

Anderson raises Angus beef cattle on his farm and sells grassfed freezer beef to local customers. He has seven children, ranging in age from 14 to 28. Six of his children are still living at home.

He wanted to get environmental testing done at his farm to ensure that things were OK. It was unclear what residents living outside the 1-mile evacuation area needed to be concerned about, if anything, but after seeing the soot on his cars, Anderson wanted to know what was in it.

Dave Anderson, of Darlington, Pennsylvania, found a black sooty residue on his vehicles after the controlled vent and burn of vinyl chloride from derailed train cars in East Palestine Feb. 6. He is getting the residue tested to see if anything harmful was in it that is now spread all over his farmland. (submitted photo)

A major concern now is dioxins, a group of chemical compounds created by burning wood, oil, coal and waste. It’s also created from some industrial processes, like bleaching pulp and paper. Cigarette smoke also contains small amounts of dioxin. 

It’s not clear whether dioxin was released during the vinyl chloride burn, but scientists say it’s likely. Ohio’s U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and J.D. Vance sent a letter to the state’s environmental protection agency last week expressing concerns about dioxins and called for soil testing.

Dioxins are highly toxic and can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems and interfere with hormones, according to an EPA

Dioxin is already found at background levels in soil, from many years of humans burning things, said Murray McBride, a soil chemist and professor emeritus at Cornell University. It attaches itself to organic matter. 

“We would see maybe 3 or 5, maybe 10 parts per trillion of dioxin in surface soil,” McBride said.

The compounds accumulate in fatty tissue of animals and the EPA estimates 90% of human exposure is from eating animal fats, meat and dairy. 

Dioxin is not soluble in water and doesn’t break down easily. That’s the good news, as it won’t be taken up by plants. So, presumably animals grazing on forages should be OK, as long as the dust particles containing the dioxins stay put in the soil, McBride said.  It has a half life of about 10 years, McBride said. The problem would come in if strong winds or heavy rains disturb the dioxin particles and splash them up onto the leaves of the plants.

All of this is only a concern for local farmers if the level of dioxin released into the environment is higher than typical and “safe” levels of background exposure. But no one knows that because the EPA isn’t testing for dioxin. Debra Shore, regional EPA administrator, told Pittsburgh TV station WTAE during a press conference Feb. 27 in East Palestine that they were not testing for the compounds because they didn’t have previous data to compare new test results against.

“We don’t have baseline information for dioxins — they are ubiquitous in the environment — they can be caused by wildfires, by backyard grilling, by a host of other normal activities in human life and without that information it would be hard to attribute any level to the derailment,” Shore said.

• • •

Other environmental testing and health monitoring is ongoing. The Pennsylvania DEP said over the weekend it had tested 13 out of 16 private residential water wells within a mile of the derailment. Results were expected back sometime this week.

DEP representatives told one resident they would be doing extensive water and soil testing at her property within the 1-mile radius, but it wasn’t clear what was being tested for in the soil. The DEP did not respond to a request for clarification.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources gave an updated number of aquatic species killed as a result of the chemical contamination in local stream – 2,938. ODNR director Mary Mertz said during a Feb. 23 press conference said about 2,200 of those animals killed were small minnows.

From their sampling, the ODNR calculated that about 38,222 minnows were likely killed in the 5-mile span of waterway from the derailment site downstream to where the streams hit Little Beaver Creek. About 5,500 other aquatic life was estimated to have been killed, including small fish, crayfish, amphibians and macroinvertebrates.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health announced Feb. 27 it is opening a health resource center in Darlington Township, for residents who have concerns about health impacts from the derailment. There will also be representatives from the DEP and Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to answer questions. The Ohio Department of Health opened a health clinic in East Palestine last week for residents, staffed by registered nurses and mental health specialists.

• • •

Two days after calling around and getting nowhere, Anderson and a neighbor, Andrew Erdos, reached out to a law firm to see if they could help somehow. Anderson said once they explained their concern, the law firm — Grant and Eisenhofer — sent representatives out immediately to get samples from their soil, ponds and well water.

“That information, whether it’s harmful to be here, to me is critical for whether I can sell my cows,” Anderson said. “Without knowing and having the information, I can’t make decisions.”

Anderson and Erdos filed a class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, calling for a medical monitoring program and a medical monitoring fund for residents within 30 miles of the derailment site. Anderson said filing a lawsuit was the best way he could find to get answers, since he wasn’t getting a response from any state or federal agencies or officials.

“I had four beef that were supposed to go to the butcher Feb. 20. I held them back,” he said. 

One of his customers also called to say they didn’t want the whole beef they ordered, because of the derailment being so close to the farm. They had concerns, and Anderson understood. He arranged for another farmer, who lives and raises animals much further away, to fill his beef orders. 

His gut tells him the environment is all right. He tries to be optimistic, but he wants to know for sure. 

“I hope these tests come back in a way that no one’s life changes even a little,” Anderson said. “But when you’re talking about your kids, ‘I think it’s OK’ isn’t good enough.”

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or


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Rachel is Farm and Dairy's editor and a graduate of Clarion University of Pennsylvania. She married a fourth-generation farmer and settled down in her hometown in Beaver County, where she co-manages the family farm raising beef cattle and sheep with her husband and in-laws. Before coming to Farm and Dairy, she worked at several daily and weekly newspapers throughout Western Pennsylvania covering everything from education and community news to police and courts. She can be reached at or 724-201-1544.



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