Test results show soil is safe at Pa. farms after train derailment

A train runs along the tracks that borders a property in Darlington, Pennsylvania on Feb. 19 (Rachel Wagoner photo)

DARLINGTON, Pa. — Preliminary soil test results from farms in Pennsylvania show no signs of contamination from the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and U.S. EPA.

Volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds were not detected in the samples, taken from 15 farms in Beaver and Lawrence counties that were impacted by smoke from the chemical burnoff following the derailment in nearby East Palestine, Ohio. 

Levels of dioxins came back within expected background levels for a rural area. Dioxin is carcinogenic chemical compound that is a byproduct of combustion and found throughout the environment. 

Final results and analysis are expected back in the coming weeks.

“The EPA and DEP presenters felt these were good indications our soils are clean,” said Cliff Wallace, president of the Beaver-Lawrence Farm Bureau.

Representatives from the DEP, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency met with farmers March 22 to discuss the preliminary results and other concerns. 

The test results are good news for farmers in the region, some of whom have lost business due to the stigma of existing near the derailment. Some farms were enveloped by the plume of smoke that spread throughout the area Feb. 6 after five derailed tank cars of the hazardous chemical vinyl chloride were vented and burned off in an effort to prevent an uncontrolled explosion.

Though initial testing of air, groundwater, surface water and soil pointed to no contamination issues in Pennsylvania from the derailment or chemical burnoff, and state agencies maintained that crops, livestock and other animal products should be safe, consumer confidence took a hit. 

Wallace said he heard from farmers with beef cattle who had orders canceled due to contamination fears and greenhouse growers who heard customers were afraid to plant vegetable gardens. More testing needed to be done to reassure people local agricultural products were safe and marketable, he said. 

“Multigenerational farms were depending on these results to be able to market their crops,” he said. “Most importantly, every homeowner in the area wondered if it was safe for their children to play in their yards. I feel we have answers to those questions now.”

It’s yet to be seen if farmers will be compensated for business lost from the incident. In a roundtable meeting with a group of local journalists on March 16, Alan Shaw, Norfolk Southern chief executive officer, said there were no plans yet to compensate farmers directly. 

“I would encourage folks again to go to our Family Assistance Center,” he told Farm and Dairy. “I don’t have a specific program set up for that yet.”

The soil test results come 47 days after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, a town bordering a rural part of western Pennsylvania. State and federal agencies were slow to do environmental testing outside the immediate area 1-2 mile ring around the derailment. They had limited resources and manpower with which to spread around the area, and initial data did not indicate a need to test further afield. 

After receiving pressure from the local farm bureau, farmers, elected officials and the community, the EPA announced March 9 they would test select farms shown to have been hit by the smoke. With information Wallace gathered from his farmers and information gathered by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, they came up with a group of farms to samples. The farm furthest out was 8 miles away from the derailment. 

The samples were taken by DEP contractors and sent to an independent laboratory for testing. The DEP contracted with a laboratory that was not being used by Norfolk Southern for its soil testing, Wallace said.

Soil sampling at farms, recreational and residential sites in Ohio and other sites in Pennsylvania is continuing. Results from Norfolk Southern’s testing efforts are expected soon. 

Pennsylvania announced earlier this week that state government agencies will have a long-term physical presence in rural Darlington Township, Beaver County, to continue assisting residents impacted by the derailment. 

Starting March 23, staff from the Pennsylvania Departments of Agriculture, Environmental Protection and Health will be onsite at the Darlington Township building, 3590 Darlington Road, every Thursday from noon to 5 p.m. to meet with residents. Additional staff will be available via video conferencing during that time, as well. 

Agency staff and Beaver County also plan to hold open house events on Thursday evenings from 6-8 p.m. to offer one-on-one discussions with residents who attend, as well as provide resources and information. 

(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at 724-201-1544 or rachel@farmanddairy.com. The farm she manages with her family, in Darlington, Pennsylvania, was one of the farms sampled by the DEP.)

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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 rachel@farmanddairy.com or 724-201-1544.



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