Senate Dems Elevate Farmers' Calls for Relief From Toxic Train Derailment
"The farmer shouldn't be penalized for this unfortunate and unique situation," said John Stock of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. "It's going to have an impact on these farms, and it's a reality that impacts all of us."
Just over a month after a Norfolk Southern train derailed in near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, a trio of U.S. senators on Wednesday wrote to a pair of Biden administration leaders that "we are hearing from farmers and agricultural producers who are concerned about the impacts of the derailment and associated release of hazardous materials on their livelihoods."
After train cars derailed and caught fire in East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, the rail giant conducted a controlled release of vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on February 21 ordered Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up contaminated soil and water; facing local pressure, the EPA on Friday told the company to test for dioxins, while maintaining the position that based on agency testing, it is unlikely those toxic chemical compounds were released.
"Dioxins are some of the most potent carcinogens on Earth—there's no 'safe' dose for humans, and pregnant women and young children are especially vulnerable to their effects," Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator now on the Bennington College faculty and president of the group Beyond Plastics, noted in a New York Times opinion piece Wednesday. In addition to cancer, dioxins—which persist in the environment for long periods—are tied to developmental, reproductive, and immune system issues.
However, so far, despite fears of various pollutants, neither the EPA nor the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) "or any other federal or state agencies have provided clear guidance to either our agricultural producers in the region or consumers of those products," according to the letter from Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and John Fetterman (D-Pa.).
"As these farmers prepare for planting and marketing efforts, they are left wondering what impacts the derailment and chemical release will have on the safety of their products and the viability of their farms."
"The 2023 planting season is quickly approaching, followed by spring harvest of overwintered crops, such as alfalfa and winter wheat, that are typically sold as feed to dairies in the region," they wrote to EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. "As these farmers prepare for planting and marketing efforts, they are left wondering what impacts the derailment and chemical release will have on the safety of their products and the viability of their farms."
"Producers are concerned not only over the lack information about the safety of their crops and livestock but also whether they will be able to market them due to market and consumer concerns about the safety of their products," the senators continued, noting that "farmers in the region are already reporting receiving requests to cancel orders due to these very concerns."
The lawmakers are calling on the EPA and USDA to work with state agricultural departments and academics to provide farmers with relief, including the rapid deployment of resources for "any necessary testing of their soils, plant tissue, and livestock and to interpret the results of those tests as they pertain to the safety and marketability of their crops and products."
Given that some consumers will likely be nervous about buying from the region regardless of test results, the senators are also requesting a review of disaster assistance that can be deployed as well as technical assistance for language to include in the next farm bill to expand aid for "producers who have been impacted by man-made disasters, including chemicals spills."
Alarm about the pontential impact on local farming as well as criticism of how Norfolk Southern and various government figures and agencies have handled the environmental and public health disaster have mounted since the derailment last month.
"I have a part ownership in a farm, so I'm concerned about that," Eloise Harmon, of East Palestine, toldWHIO on Friday. "The soil at the farm: Can we plant? Can we not plant? Will anybody buy it, if we do plant?"
"We could, of course... probably go find some grass somewhere else, but why should we have to because of something that was not our fault?"
Rachel Wagoner—whose family's Tall Pines Farms in Darlington, Pennsylvania specializes in grass-fed beef and lamb—toldWTEA in late February that "it feels like you don't have a lot of options, so you've just gotta deal with it."
"In farming, you're tied to the land," she said. "We could, of course... probably go find some grass somewhere else, but why should we have to because of something that was not our fault?"
Since the train derailed just a few miles away, the family has not had any issues with their animals. Wagoner said that "it's been fairly normal, which feels sort of weird for how everyone in the community is experiencing things."
However, Wagoner—like so many other farmers and other residents of the region—is worried about pollutants including dioxins. She also expressed frustration with the difficulty in accessing information, including about testing.
If soil testing reveals contaminants, "the door opens to another question," as Lancaster Farmingpointed out Friday:
"What happens is these people can no longer make a living from that farm. Will these farms be bought out at a fair price?" asked John Stock, sustainable agriculture educator with the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. "It would be great to have transparency with testing, but a lot of farms don't have a baseline for these contaminants."
If airborne contaminants are found in a soil test, Stock said it's unlikely the finding would jeopardize organic certification standards. The farmer didn't intentionally apply the contaminants, he said, and the occurrence was out of their control.
As for contaminated water used for irrigation, Stock said an affected farmer may have to change water sources or use filtration.
"The farmer shouldn't be penalized for this unfortunate and unique situation," Stock said. "It's going to have an impact on these farms, and it's a reality that impacts all of us."
Another issue is a lack of trust. Slate's Ellin Youse, who grew up not far from the derailment site, explained Tuesday that "so many people affected by this accident feel distrust toward the agencies in charge of dealing with the situation, toward the transportation companies responsible, and toward the national reporters who only seem to come around for close national elections and disasters, that it quickly felt almost impossible to communicate accurately."
After speaking with Jason Blinkiewicz, who owns a trucking company and repair shop just over a mile from where the train derailed, Grist's Eve Andrews wrote last week that "he, like most of his neighbors and employees, doesn't trust Norfolk Southern and assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that the air and water have been safe to breathe and drink."
According to Andrews:
"It's normalized to some degree because there's already low air quality in the area," Blinkiewicz said. "The cracker plant is putting out volatile organic compounds, or what's the nuclear power plant doing, or how about the coal plant right behind it that they shut down not that long ago? What about the mills in Midland and the steel plant in Koppel?"
But all of those facilities are far enough from Blinkiewicz's home and workplace that he hasn't felt their impacts nearly as acutely as those of the derailment. "I think it's the first time, in my 46 years on this planet, in this area, that it gives you an uneasy feeling about everything," he said.
"And as much as it pains me to say, my trust has to lie in our government. Which is hard to do, right? But we have to rely on those government agencies to protect us. That's what they're there for."
The EPA administrator said Friday that "over the last few weeks, I've sat with East Palestine residents and community leaders in their homes, businesses, churches, and schools. I've heard their fears and concerns directly, and I've pledged that these experiences would inform EPA's ongoing response efforts."
"In response to concerns shared with me by residents, EPA will require Norfolk Southern to sample directly for dioxins under the agency's oversight and direct the company to conduct immediate cleanup if contaminants from the derailment are found at levels that jeopardize people's health," Regan continued. "This action builds on EPA's bipartisan efforts alongside our local, state, and federal partners to earn the trust of this community and ensure all residents have the reassurances they need to feel safe at home once again."
The EPA's statement added that the agency "will also continue sampling for 'indicator chemicals,' which based on test results to date, suggest a low probability for release of dioxin from this incident."
As The Washington Postreported:
Asked why EPA is delegating dioxin testing to Norfolk Southern, as opposed to conducting the sampling itself, agency officials said the railroad is required to submit its plans to the government and that EPA can modify them or step in and complete the work itself...
Railroad officials said in a statement Friday they are aware of EPA's directive on dioxin testing and "are committed to working with the agency to do what is right for the residents of East Palestine."
"We will continue to listen to the concerns of the community as restoration work moves forward," the statement continued.
It was not immediately clear how widely the railroad would be required to test for dioxins. EPA officials said more details would become available once the railroad submits its work plans.
In her piece for the Times, Enck argued that the EPA "should have ordered comprehensive testing the very day of the burn. It should have told residents, especially pregnant women and families with young children, not to return home until it was safe to do so. Instead, it timidly stood back, leaving local authorities, corporate interests, and rumors to fill the void."
Now, the EPA "needs to conduct comprehensive environmental testing for dioxins in and around East Palestine," wrote Enck, who was a regional director during the Obama administration. The agency also "needs to establish federally funded medical monitoring for everyone along the plume. Even those who appear healthy now should be offered baseline testing."
Additionally, she said, "for effective enforcement of our environmental laws, Congress needs to approve more funding for this crucial agency."