The state of Ohio filed a lawsuit against rail company Norfolk Southern in federal court on Tuesday over the train derailment in East Palestine and subsequent chemical fallout.
Residents of the small rust belt community continue to suffer weeks after the February 3 disaster. Local and state authorities previously evacuated all citizens within one mile of the derailment site and started a controlled burn of chemicals on the vehicle to decrease the risk of an explosion. The lawsuit, which contended that Norfolk Southern should be held financially liable for the derailment, characterized the incident as “entirely avoidable” and the result of executives neglecting the “welfare of the communities in which Norfolk Southern operates.”
“Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Attorney General Dave Yost (R-OH) said in a statement. “The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water and soil.”
Vinyl chloride, a known human carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was emitted during the controlled burn from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of black smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. Analysts from Texas A&M University and Carnegie Mellon University announced that nine of the 50 chemicals the EPA said were present on the derailed train now have higher concentrations than normal in East Palestine, even after state and federal officials claimed that air and water supplies were safe.
The EPA has additionally directed Norfolk Southern to sample for dioxins, a class of pollutants that can be formed by vinyl chloride combustion and can bind to soil particles for decades.
The lawsuit further noted that accident rates for Norfolk Southern have doubled over the past decade and involved at least 20 chemical releases since 2015. Officials therefore demanded reimbursement for all response costs “incurred and to be incurred” as a result of the disaster.
“The state of Ohio is the owner in trust of public lands, waters, and resources within its political boundaries and has a duty to protect and preserve those natural resources,” the lawsuit continued. “Ohio brings this action to redress the derailment and the resulting contamination of Ohio’s natural resources, which has caused significant damage and poses a significant ongoing threat to Ohio’s natural resources and the citizens of Ohio.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw testified before Congress last week regarding the derailment, but made no specific promises regarding the firm’s commitment to handle economic and health fallout into the future. Another train controlled by Norfolk Southern derailed in Piedmont, Alabama, as Shaw delivered his testimony.
Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, which would require rail companies to report hazardous materials present on trains to state authorities, raise inspection requirements, and increase the rigor of defect detection efforts. The bill would meanwhile increase several civil penalties for violations of rail safety regulations tenfold and require that each train must operate with at least two-person crews.
Federal investigators have preliminarily concluded that the derailment was caused by a malfunctioning rail axle. “Surveillance video from a residence showed what appears to be a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment,” the NTSB said in a press release. “The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination.”
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