US Justice Department Sues Norfolk Southern, Alleges Ohio Train Derailment Is 'Polluting Nation's Waterways'

Train Derailment
Toxic chemicals coat creek in East Palestine, Ohio, after a massive toxic train derailment.Getty

The U.S. Justice Department has sued Norfolk Southern over February's catastrophic toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

The U.S. Justice Department has filed a major civil lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, alleging the freight company broke environmental laws and polluted water and soil when its chemical train derailed in Ohio on Feb. 3, spewing toxins and igniting fireballs that forced thousands from their homes.

The 28-page complaint was filed Thursday in the Northern District of Ohio on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency. The lawsuit seeks to force the rail company to pay all cleanup costs of the massive toxic spill and alleges the firm is “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways."

“No community should have to go through what East Palestine residents have faced,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Friday in a statement. The legal action makes sure the railroad “cleans up the mess they made and pays for the damage they have inflicted as we work to ensure this community can feel safe at home again,” Regan said.

His comments and the lawsuit are some of the strongest words of government condemnation since 38 cars, 11 of them containing toxic chemicals, flew off the tracks in the small hamlet of East Palestine, near the Pennsylvania border. The crash sent flames and toxic chemical shooting into the sky and over the land. 

Norfolk Southern then emptied a car containing dangerous and hazardous vinyl chloride and set fire to it. The measure was necessary to off a bomb-like explosion, the company said.

The train contained a slew of harmful chemicals, the federal suit said. Exposure to them carries “increased risk of cancer; risks to fetal development; damage to organs like the liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin; and other health conditions," the complaint alleges.

In a statement Friday, the railway said it was "working with urgency, at the direction of the US EPA, and making daily progress. That remains our focus and we’ll keep working until we make it right," the statement said.

Company officials have repeatedly apologized for the disaster, saying the railway would bear the costs of cleaning up the toxic mess that has seeped into soils, creeks and the Ohio River. Many residents have complained of dying livestock and fish, as well as sickened children and say they have no faith in health recovery efforts.

State, federal and local officials and environmental agencies have continually said testing has shown no dangerous levels of toxins in public water supplies. That did not appease the many residents who rely on private wells for their water needs.

The Justice Department lawsuit also alleges that Norfolk Southern put profits over rail safety. The suit accuses railway senior executives of shoring up their performance bonuses at the expense of servicing its trains and equipment.

“Over the past four years, annual reports show a stark contrast between the increases in operating income and the drop in railroad operating costs,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim, who wrote the complaint.

Those actions contributed to the fiery crash, the lawsuit claims.

“The drop in operating costs includes reductions in spending to repair, service and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections, and pay engine crews and train crews,” the complaint said.

The Justice Department did not include a total estimated cost for the clean-up in its lawsuit. But the penalties sought are about $120,000 for each day the railway is found to be in violation of the Clean Water Act.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, as are several other local, state and environmental agencies. Several class-actions suits have been filed on behalf of residents and property owners, who say their holdings are now worthless.

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