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Justice Department sues Norfolk Southern over Ohio train derailment

The federal lawsuit says the railroad giant was aware of major safety issues but chose to put profits first.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (CN) — Filing a federal lawsuit against the company, the U.S. Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency pledged to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for cleaning up the environmental havoc caused by the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials through East Palestine, Ohio.

The latest in a series of government lawsuits against Norfolk Southern alleges the railroad giant’s holding company was aware of management’s concerns about lax inspections practices and the use of malfunctioning equipment, but elected to prioritize profits above safety.

Thousands of aquatic species have died as a result of the 38-car derailment, after 11 cars containing hazardous substances crashed and spilled their contents into local groundwater supply.

Among these toxic chemicals, Norfolk Southern reports vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, isobutylene and benzene residue. 

“In addition, five of the rail cars that derailed were carrying oil, another car contained fuel additives, and an additional empty car contained liquified petroleum gas residue,” according to the Justice Department's lawsuit, which was filed Thursday and announced by the federal government on Friday.

The complaint includes an aerial photograph of 25 railcars of toxic materials zigzagging across the tracks, crumpled and smoldering, with a visual key to the chemicals they were hauling.

Norfolk Southern chose to perform a controlled chemical burn of cars that resulted in the release of additional toxic chemicals into the air and local water supply, the lawsuit states.

“Exposure to these hazardous materials at sufficiently high levels has been associated variously with an increased risk of cancer; risks to fetal development; damage to organs like the liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin; and other health conditions,” the filing states.

The contaminants released into the water supply made their way as far as the Ohio River by way of tributaries Sulphur Run, Bull Creek and the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek, resulting in the deaths of thousands of aquatic animals within a five-mile radius, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reported.

Residents along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border within a one-mile radius of the derailment were evacuated from their homes on Feb. 4 as the fire burned for several days. On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern chose to perform a controlled burn of five railcars containing vinyl chloride as the Ohio National Guard expanded the radius of evacuees.

The Justice Department is seeking financial penalties in addition to cleanup and repair costs.

On Thursday, U.S. Senators John Fetterman, Bob Casey and Sherrod Brown introduced the Railway Accountability Act as a follow-up to the bipartisan Railway Safety Act of 2023 proposed last month.

“It is an honor and a privilege to introduce my first piece of legislation, the Railway Accountability Act, following the derailment affecting East Palestine, Ohio, and Darlington Township, Pennsylvania," said Fetterman, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "This bill will implement commonsense safety reforms, hold the big railway companies accountable, protect the workers who make these trains run, and help prevent future catastrophes that endanger communities near railway infrastructure."

He added, “Communities like Darlington Township and East Palestine are too often forgotten and overlooked by leaders in Washington and executives at big companies like Norfolk Southern who only care about making their millions. That’s why I’m proud to be working with my colleagues to stand up for these communities and make clear that we’re doing everything we can to prevent a disaster like this from happening again.”

Brown echoed that sentiment in a Friday afternoon tweet.

“Whatever it takes to make East Palestine whole, Norfolk Southern needs to pay – and it’s not enough to take their word for it,” the Ohio Democrat wrote.

Republican Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, who filed his own 58-count federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern two weeks ago, announced last month that he would be working alongside the company to remediate the damages. Norfolk Southern, which was criticized for hiring its own private toxicologist to perform testing, has since agreed to hire only Ohio-based contractors to perform remediation efforts.

“Our job right now is to make progress every day cleaning up the site, assisting residents whose lives were impacted by the derailment and investing in the future of East Palestine and the surrounding areas,” Connor Spielmaker, a communications manager for Norfolk Southern, said in an email.

Spielmaker noted that Norfolk Southern has removed more than 9.4 million gallons of polluted water, as well as 12,904 tons of soil.

“We are working with urgency, at the direction of the U.S. EPA, and making daily progress. That remains our focus and we’ll keep working until we make it right,” Spielmaker said.

A spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General's Office said it is "continuing to monitor the cleanup and working to ensure that Norfolk Southern is held accountable."

Categories:Business, Environment, Government, Regional

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