Ohio Farmer

How Ohio ag handled train derailment

Proving that crops grown in the area were healthy took time, cost, commitment and sacrifice.

Jennifer Kiel, Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

May 3, 2024

6 Slides

In the fall after the East Palestine train derailment and environmental catastrophe, an Ohio grower changed the way he marketed his crop to the Cleveland market.

He took down his Columbiana County sign, even though he was from Salem, about 20 miles in the opposite direction of the plume of smoke. He knew his apples were healthy and wholesome, but a stigma was swirling as the science and clean test results were still not widely known or accepted by some.

Agriculture got a clean bill of health following the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment and the controlled burn that followed three days later, but proving that did not come easy or without great time, cost, commitment and sacrifice.

There was fear about the unknown impact on crops, the immediate need to care for livestock left behind after people were evacuated, and marketing changes until the truth was backed with plant tissue samples.

As questions about ag contamination began to roll in from growers, especially those who direct-market to customers, ag industry leaders were joining forces to develop and execute a plan to find answers.

Plant tissue testing

Plant tissue sampling is not something new, as farmers use it for nutritive quality, but sampling for semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs) was a whole new arena.

“We were exploring protocols, which took a little time to validate, but it was worth it to give our producers the data they needed to allow them to have informed conversations with consumers, product marketers and concerned citizens,” explains Haley Shoemaker, Ohio State University Extension educator from Columbiana County.

The testing was targeted at crops in dormancy that would green up in the spring, including winter wheat, malting barley, rye, alfalfa and pasture grass.

All samples were analyzed for the same 26 selected SVOCs the EPA has been testing for in soil samples. In total, 31 samples were taken from both the inner radius, within 3 miles surrounding the derailment, and the background radius of 3 to 5 miles out.

The area is hilly with diverse agriculture, including everything from fruits and vegetables and row crops to dairy and an array of livestock. The samples were analyzed by the OSU lab using an EPA method with modified extraction protocols to accommodate plant tissue testing.

The data produced, in partnership with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, showed plant materials from agricultural sites in the East Palestine area are not contaminated with SVOCs.

This information confirms, Shoemaker says, plant materials are not a source of SVOC exposure, which is consistent with SVOC analysis of air, soil and water samples collected by EPA from other locations.

Protocols were developed by early March. Samples were pulled beginning April 10, 2023, and the data and findings were back by May 16.

“Normally science doesn’t work this efficiently, but researchers put everything on hold to concentrate on plant tissue testing,” Shoemaker says. “It was one of the most efficient research projects I have ever been a part of because our research team knew how important this work was to the community.”

The labs were prepared to provide additional testing if the results showed elevated readings. “We were relieved with the data because we didn’t see levels of concern,” Shoemaker adds. “This was great news for producers, giving them the confidence to turn their cows out on pasture, harvest their products and sell to consumers, who also now had that reassurance.”

Private results went back to the landowners, while the full report — with a zone-based map broken into quadrants — is available to the public at ema.ohio.gov. “That report does not say the exact owner or what field it came from to protect landowner privacy,” she adds.

Early coordination

Ohio Farm Bureau and the Columbiana Soil and Water Conservation District were also hands-on in communicating and coordinating with farmers and other activities. Nick Kennedy, OFB organization director for four counties, and Pete Conkle, administrator from the conservation district, took the lead from those organizations.

In the immediate hours and for several days after the derailment, there was a barrier around the site.

“Ohio Farm Bureau members who had been evacuated reached out for help in getting access to livestock,” says Kennedy, who notes the first concern was human life and safety. “We worked with the Ohio Department of Agriculture to make sure law enforcement was aware of the need for access. At that point, we really didn’t have a timeline of what or when things were going to happen, but we were able to get farmers in with police escort to take care of their animals and then back out.”

Besides the apple farmer taking his Columbiana County sign down and one customer canceling a side of beef order, “We didn’t have any reports of anyone saying they had seen a major loss in product because of this event,” Kennedy says. “At first, there was an undertone in the community with uncertainty, but I don’t think that today. That skepticism only lasted a couple of months.”

Before most of the 2023 crop was in the ground, OFB also had conservations with co-ops in the area to make sure there wasn’t any concern with taking the ensuing crop. “Producers bought inputs, and they needed to know they could get going and the test results supplied that confidence,” Kennedy says.

Quick action

The night of the derailment, Jan Douglass was awakened by a concerned friend. “That’s the first I heard of it,” says Douglass, who has a 200-acre farm in New Waterford, 3½ miles northwest of the epicenter. She leases out the 60 acres of cropland, but manages it herself following regenerative agriculture practices.

She quickly started making connections to share information as she belongs to an 800-member group in the county. “I really wasn’t that concerned until they blew those train cars, and the wind shifted to the northwest coming over my farm. My house was contaminated, but I didn’t know about my property.”

She had soil and water tests done, including one of her three ponds. “All the tests came back fine,” she says. “And thank God for the Soil and Water Conservation District, and Haley Shoemaker from Extension, who headed this up in developing tissue testing. Those tests came back fine, and we planted soybeans the next day. I have no concern about future crops, and I know that the products coming off the farm are the best they can be.”

While agriculture seems to have escaped crippling impacts from this disaster, Kennedy says they will continue to monitor the area for years to come.

“We feel pretty good that everything for agriculture was accomplished,” he says. “But I think everybody's on edge in the sense of predicting what life's going be like five or 10 years from now, health-wise, for the people living there. We will continue to serve the people. … They are not forgotten.”

Shoemaker agrees. “As Extension, we’ve been engaged since day one. We’re grateful growers trusted us to let us on their property for testing. We’re here to serve the community and provide unbiased, research-based support.”

The cost in dollars and cents is yet to be tabulated, but the real impact — the fear of the unknown — growers say will be remembered for years to come.

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About the Author(s)

Jennifer Kiel

Editor, Michigan Farmer and Ohio Farmer

While Jennifer is not a farmer and did not grow up on a farm, "I think you'd be hard pressed to find someone with more appreciation for the people who grow our food and fiber, live the lifestyles and practice the morals that bind many farm families," she says.

Before taking over as editor of Michigan Farmer in 2003, she served three years as the manager of communications and development for the American Farmland Trust Central Great Lakes Regional Office in Michigan and as director of communications with Michigan Agri-Business Association. Previously, she was the communications manager at Michigan Farm Bureau's state headquarters. She also lists 10 years of experience at six different daily and weekly Michigan newspapers on her impressive resume.

Jennifer lives in St. Johns with her two daughters, Elizabeth, 19, and Emily 16.

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