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Life returns to normal on a Pennsylvania farm near the East Palestine derailment disaster

Rachel Wagoner at her farm in Darlington, Pennsylvania, about three miles from the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, toxic train derailment.
Matthew Chasney
For Ideastream Public Media
Rachel Wagoner raises sheep and cattle at her farm in Darlington, Pennsylvania, about three miles from the site of the Feb. 3, 2023, toxic train derailment.

Life is getting back to normal in farming communities near the fiery train wreck in East Palestine that upended life along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Rachel Wagoner’s Western Pennsylvania farm, in Darlington, is about three miles from the site of the Feb. 3 train derailment that sent a toxic cloud of smoke drifting over the rural area. She is also a journalist who covered the disaster for Farm and Dairy magazine.

Wagoner said her family and animals took cover during the vent and burn of spilled tank cars, but life quickly returned to normal.

We asked Wagoner about her experiences since the derailment.

What was it like during the crisis?

The sheep and cattle had no clue what happened. That's the interesting thing about farm life. The animals need feed. They need water. They need to be looked at everyday regardless of anything else that's going on in the whole world.

You're thrust back into it no matter what else is going on.

Rachel Wagoner
Spring is lambing time at Rachel Wagoner's farm just three miles from the site of a toxic train derailment that upended life in the rural Pennsylvania community. Wagoner says farm life continues as normal despite the ongoing testing and questions surrounding the disaster.

What are some of the lingering concerns for you and your neighbors that were impacted by the disaster?

We got some preliminary soil test results back from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. EPA that basically said everything looks good, there's no contamination in our soil.

It's our understanding that a lot of these things can't be taken up in plants or they're not sure. But I just have a gut feeling that things are fine.

The battle now is more of a PR issue for local farmers because when people Google 'Darlington farms,' what comes up is this train derailment, and they might wonder, 'Is it safe?' They see pictures of the giant smoke cloud and have questions.

We haven't had any issues with customers backing out over the safety of the meat we sell, but other local farmers have.

Has Norfolk Southern responded to the needs of local farmers, compensated them for any losses or made promises to them for future loss?

No, not that I'm aware of.

And that's where I put on my journalist hat because I was recently invited to a select media roundtable with Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, and I asked him what was the plan to compensate people if they had losses they could demonstrate were from this incident? He didn't have an answer. He said there was no program yet.

But I think it's just one of those things that you have to keep on it; you have to keep bringing it up and keep letting people know that it could be an issue.

Spring has arrived and you've been posting these pictures of these super cute lambs that are being born, and there's the sense that life carries on. But does it feel different this year?

No, it doesn't feel different because with farming you're always in it. You're always responding to the needs of livestock. So this train derailment thing and everything that surrounds it was just kind of another layer on top of all these other things that you're doing.

Watching lambs being born is always a really special experience and maybe even more so now, just to know that everything seems to be fine.

It's heartening to see that everything is normal and we're about to start with our cattle having calves. I'm just really looking forward to everything being super normal and having nothing weird go on, and that feels really good.

Jeff St. Clair is the midday host for Ideastream Public Media.