Train Derailment Creates Uncertainty for Farmers
Steve Montgomery speaks during a hayride event at his farm last October. Montgomery, whose farm is near the train derailment site in Ohio, believes healthy soil has a degree of resiliency against chemical contamination from the incident.

The scene Steve Montgomery witnessed from the window of his home Feb. 6 is a sight he’ll never forget.

It was late in the day when officials decided to conduct a controlled burn on one of the derailed train cars in East Palestine, Ohio. The car was carrying vinyl chloride, an industrial chemical used to make plastic products, and officials determined a planned fire was the best way to avoid an explosion.

Montgomery, whose farm in Columbiana, Ohio, is about 8 miles away, described it as remarkably dramatic.

“It was really crazy. I never saw anything like it,” said Montgomery, who is the executive director of the nonprofit Lamppost Farm.

“The cloud just kept billowing. It was eerie.”

And unsettling.

Lamppost Farm sells grass-fed beef and lamb, along with pastured pork, poultry and free-range eggs. Being dependent on the land to raise livestock and produce meat for customers, Montgomery wondered if the chemicals and the billowing black smoke would compromise the farm’s products, which are raised with a focus on healthy soil and clean water.

While the farm is fairly close to the derailment site, it is upstream and upwind from East Palestine.

“That plays into our favor,” Montgomery said, adding the farm will have water and soil testing conducted as a precautionary measure. The testing, he said, will likely continue for several years.

Meanwhile, farms like Lamppost are in damage control mode with clientele. Montgomery said he’s received numerous inquiries from customers about the safety of the farm’s products.

“With the exception of our eggs, all of the meat that is in the freezers was raised and produced in 2022, prior to this incident,” he said.

The East Palestine derailment has attracted significant attention as residents — and social-media denizens — worry the rupture could cause long-term problems for locals and people downwind.

So far state and federal agencies say they have found little cause for concern.

No homes have tested positive for derailment-related pollutants, and air samples remain below action thresholds for chemicals of concern, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Feb. 24.

About 120 state and federal personnel have been responding to the incident.

Jake Kristophel’s farm in Volant, Pennsylvania, is about 25 miles northeast of East Palestine. When the controlled burn took place, he said, the smoke drifted to the northwest. Still, he is concerned about the potential fallout of chemicals — mainly dioxins — onto his soil, and he’s contacting labs to have tests conducted.

Like Montgomery’s operation, Kristophel’s Fallen Aspen Farm raises pastured pork, grass-fed lamb and free-range poultry, so soil health is his main concern.

“I’m not one to get too worked up, but I’m trying to provide a product that is nutrient-dense and good for you,” Kristophel said. “I don’t think I have a lot to be worried about, but I am being extra cautious. It’s just concerning.”

Mike Kovach’s Walnut Hill Farm is approximately 30 miles northeast of East Palestine. Kovach said the train derailment is on the minds of many farmers in his area, but he’s optimistic that things will work out for the best.

Kovach, president of the Pennsylvania Farmers Union, said he is not aware of any farmers being adversely affected by chemicals released by the derailment.

“The day of the burn, the prevailing winds never shifted, so we’re lucky in that regard,” Kovach said. “If it had come out of the southwest, we could’ve been in trouble.”

Jordan Hoewischer, Ohio Farm Bureau’s director of water quality and research, said it’s going to take time to unravel the true impact of the incident on agriculture.

“Our members are concerned, obviously, with long-term effects of their alfalfa fields and things like that that might have been exposed to particulates or anything from the air, but I really think it’s probably too soon to understand what’s all out there,” he said. “We really don’t have a clear picture right now of any short- or long-term effects.”

Christopher Reddy, an environmental chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, has studied oil spills and other environmental crises for nearly three decades. He said the chemicals released in the East Palestine incident are not in the same category as DDT or fluorinated compounds because they’re not as long-lived.

The East Palestine situation was still complex at the onset, and when fire was introduced, the chemical release became even more complicated.

The big question is, when you burn chemicals, there is potential to make chlorinated dioxins, which are associated with Agent Orange,” Reddy said. “Whether it happened with this event, I don’t know.”

Dioxins are a group of carcinogenic chemicals that persist in the environment.

In the case of Agent Orange, dioxins were a manufacturing byproduct and contaminant of a chemical used in the Vietnam War-era defoliant.

That chemical, 2,4,5-T, has been banned since the 1980s and is not listed on the manifest of the derailed cars.

According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Health and Department of Environmental Protection, five of the cars in the derailment carried vinyl chloride. When exposed to fire, vinyl chloride breaks down into hydrogen chloride and phosgene.

The former rapidly disassociates in water, making health problems unlikely for livestock grazing on grass in the affected area. Phosgene can evaporate in the air or pass through the soil and break down in water, and neither chemical accumulates in the food chain.

These chemicals may not present a lasting issue for local farmers, but the smoke has.

Cliff Wallace, president of the Beaver/Lawrence Farm Bureau, said smoke was visible for days from his home near Bessemer, Pennsylvania. The hills and valleys of the region directed the pollution, he said.

“The plume went up and started to follow the valleys,” Wallace said. “It settled.”

And farmers noticed.

According to Wallace, on the day of the controlled burn, one dairy farm in the area was so inundated with smoke that the doors on each end of the barn had to be opened for ventilation.

Another farmer closer to the plume penned his beef cows inside a barn, but the plume became so strong that one calf died of smoke inhalation, Wallace said.

Another farmer in Beaver County had four steers scheduled for processing, and one customer backed out because the animals were exposed to the smoke.

Perhaps the biggest concern is the uncertainty.

“We don’t think there’s a problem, but we want to know for sure,” Wallace said. “We have some vegetable producers, beef and dairy, and they’d like to have soil tests taken. It would really make the small producers in our area feel better to have a clean bill of health.”

If soil testing occurs and contaminants are discovered, the door opens to another question.

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.”

Lancaster Farming staff writer Rebecca Schweitzer contributed reporting for this article.