DOJ Sues Norfolk Southern Following Toxic Train Derailment

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern in response to a train derailment that occurred in early February. The derailment released toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, into the air and waterways. The lawsuit alleges that the railway company violated the Clean Water Act and demands injunctive relief, cost recovery, and civil penalties. In addition, the state of Ohio has also sued Norfolk Southern over the environmental impacts of the derailment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cost of the cleanup in February. Norfolk Southern has already pledged $27.8 million in community support, which includes scholarships for local students, a new training center for first responders, reimbursements to the local fire department for equipment used during the derailment response, landscaping, and other relief efforts. The company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, has stated that Norfolk Southern would continue to support cleanup efforts.

In a press conference on March 17, EPA Administrator Michael Regan said it would take three months to finish the cleanup, but the timeline could change. As of March 29, approximately 11,961 tons of contaminated soil and 9.2 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been shipped from the derailment site. In addition, 624 indoor screenings and soil samples have been conducted at 115 properties in both Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Preliminary data from some soil samples indicate that semi-volatile organic chemicals and dioxins are similar to typical background levels. Air monitoring continues at 23 East Palestine locations, and no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride detections have been identified thus far.

The recent derailment has prompted the introduction of a new rail safety bill, the Railway Accountability Act, which aims to address long-standing concerns regarding railway safety. The bill would direct the Federal Railroad Administration to study wheel-related failures, derailments, and other mechanical defects. It would also enact new brake safety measures and ensure railways provide workers with sufficient reporting and safety equipment.

Shaw has supported portions of an adjacent bill, the Railway Safety Act. This bill includes provisions that call for two-person crews on all freight trains. In addition, Shaw agrees in principle with other aspects of the legislation, such as establishing performance standards, maintenance standards, and alert thresholds for safety sensors.

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board points to an overheated wheel bearing on the Norfolk Southern train that derailed but does not offer a precise cause for the incident.

The lawsuit filed by the DOJ and EPA seeks to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the harm caused to the East Palestine community and ensure that the company bears the financial burden for the environmental damage and cleanup efforts. As EPA Administrator Michael Regan stated, the aim is to “make sure the community can feel safe at home again.”