Farmers Fear Contamination at Start of Growing Season Near Train Derailment

Farmers Fear Contamination at Start of Growing Season Near Train Derailment
Portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio, were still on fire at mid-day, on Feb. 4, 2023. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
Beth Brelje

With spring planting just around the corner, Ohio and Pennsylvania farmers near the Norfolk Southern train derailment are worried about the effect spilled chemicals will have on their crops and livestock.

In a joint letter on Wednesday, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and John Fetterman (D-Pa.) asked Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Thomas Vilsack and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael Regan to address the concerns of farmers and agricultural producers in the affected areas around East Palestine, Ohio, and Darlington Township, Pennsylvania.

The letter asks the USDA and EPA to send resources to the region to help farmers test soils, plant tissue, and livestock to determine their safety and marketability.

It also asks for a review of what disaster assistance could be offered to farmers.

So far, the letter says, no agency has provided clear guidance to farmers about the safety of their crops and livestock and whether they will be able to safely sell them.

“Farmers in the region are already reporting receiving requests to cancel orders due to health concerns,” the letter said. “Farmers and food producers in East Palestine and Darlington Township need assistance in responding to this manmade disaster.”

Despite testing results, the letter said, some consumers will still be apprehensive and refuse to purchase agricultural products from the region because of the contamination. That is why farmers have specifically asked for disaster assistance.

“Senators Casey and Fetterman have worked tirelessly to support Pennsylvanians and Ohioans impacted by this disaster in the short term, namely advocating for resources and holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the harm the derailment has inflicted, in addition to working to prevent similar disasters from happening in the future,” a press release about the letter said.

Fetterman’s Health

Fetterman’s work has been interrupted by health issues. The train derailed on Feb. 3 and four days later, on Feb. 7, Fetterman went to George Washington University Hospital because he was lightheaded. This was a concern because he suffered a stroke on the campaign trail and has cardiac problems. He was released on Feb. 10.

Fetterman then checked into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for treatment of clinical depression on Feb. 15, where he is expected to stay for weeks. At first, there were no signs of his working from the hospital, but on March 6, his staff posted photos on Twitter of him sitting with an aide in a lavender room at the hospital.

“Productive morning with Senator Fetterman at Walter Reed discussing the rail safety legislation, Farm Bill, and other Senate business. John is well on his way to recovery and wanted me to say how grateful he is for all the well wishes. He’s laser-focused on PA & will be back soon,” the Twitter post from Chief of Staff Adam Jentleson said. Fetterman remains unavailable to constituents.

But now, he has signed this and another joint letter.

Questions for Norfolk Southern

Another letter was sent to Alan Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corporation. It was signed by Fetterman, Casey, Brown, and U.S. Representatives Chris Deluzio (D-Pa.), Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), and J. D. Vance (R-Ohio).
In it, they asked the following questions:
  • How does the company plan to assist individuals or municipalities with short-term water needs? What will be done in the long-term if water sources are contaminated by the hazardous materials that leaked out of tanker cars or that were created during the explosion and subsequent fires?
  • What is the company’s plan to reimburse local farmers if their crops, soil, or livestock are found to be injured, killed, contaminated, or in any way rendered less valuable by the derailment or its effects?
  • How will the company determine the amount of direct financial compensation it will provide to municipalities affected by this derailment, including East Palestine, Ohio, and Darlington Township, Pennsylvania?
  • What steps will the company take to make information regarding reimbursements and financial assistance available to local residents, organizations, businesses, and relevant public officials? Following the emergency phase of the clean-up, what subsurface remediation activities are anticipated being needed and what is the anticipated length of time required for those activities?
  • What are the company’s plans for remediation and disposal of impacted soils? Will any of the materials need to be transported off-site for treatment and disposal? And how will the company ensure communities are protected along the transportation route?
  • Since the adoption of Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), how has Norfolk Southern’s staffing changed? Can you confirm that Norfolk Southern’s workforce has reduced by approximately 40 percent due to PSR? Further, please provide data on the size of the Norfolk Southern workforce that conducts inspections of trains since adoption of PSR.
  • How much has Norfolk Southern expended on stock buybacks and dividends in the past 10 years? And during that period how much has Norfolk Southern expended on maintenance and repair of infrastructure and rolling stock?
Beth Brelje is a national, investigative journalist covering politics, wrongdoing, and the stories of everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. Send her your story ideas: [email protected]