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Local farmers spearhead soil testing after train derailment

Wallace partnered with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA and its contractors to collect 15 soil samples from farms across the region for more testing.

Published: March 14, 2023 3:10pm

Updated: March 14, 2023 11:00pm

(The Center Square) -

Farmers in western Pennsylvania began offering their soil samples for collection in recent weeks after contamination concerns about the train derailment in nearby East Palestine, Ohio went unaddressed.

Cliff Wallace, president of the Beaver-Lawrence Farm Bureau, told The Center Square on Tuesday he’s spoken with property owners seven miles out from the burn site who say they saw plumes of smoke drifting over their land in the aftermath of the crash.

Wallace, who taught agriculture classes in the region for 35 years, said he soon began compiling video footage and photos of the smoke, knowing that something more had to be done.

“These are my friends, my neighbors, my former students,” he said. “I went into my contacts in my phone and started texting people. That’s how I found out what I know.”

So began Wallace’s mission to determine whether the soil in his region became contaminated after Norfolk Southern decided to burn five derailed train cars carrying vinyl chloride just miles from the Pennsylvania border.

He said he understands that, at first, state and local officials had to focus on cleanup efforts closer to the derailment site. But as time went on, the lack of response in Pennsylvania left many residents unnerved.

“In the total scheme of things, if you had a big fire in your backyard, would you ask the fireman to go around to check the neighbor’s yard or would you want to get that fire out right now?” he said.

The EPA said Tuesday it has collected 62 soil samples from nearby residences, commercial properties, recreational areas, and agricultural sites across Pennsylvania and Ohio.

It has also completed 615 home reentry screenings through Sunday and continues 24/7 air monitoring at 23 stations. No vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride has been detected.

Those results, however, haven’t reassured residents very much. That’s why Wallace partnered with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the EPA and its contractors to collect 15 soil samples from farms across the region for more testing.

“There will be a general distrust and a lack of faith in what’s going on, so we want to put a face to it and share it with our agriculture community and get them up to speed,” he said. “Anything I can do to improve the communication I will, but that’s a challenge.”

State Rep. Jim Marshall, R-Beaver Falls, said he’s heard from residents concerned about ill health effects, as well as farmers worried about tilling soil and losing customers who fear buying “tainted” meat. He said Wallace’s efforts have been “instrumental” in helping residents feel heard.

Wallace said its his impression that any concerning test results will undergo further scrutiny.

“Hopefully my neighbors are all going to have some reassurance in a few weeks,” he said.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said during a joint policy committee hearing in Darlington on Tuesday that it is skeptical of the private contractor Norfolk Southern hired immediately to run contamination tests.

Richard Negrin, acting secretary for the agency, said derailments seem built into the railroad's business model and the lab they work with appears to be the same for each of the roughly 140 crashes Norfolk Southern records each year.

As such, he added, their results only supplement what the agency's independent testing may show.

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