The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Railway over the pollution caused in East Palestine, Ohio, by the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying hazardous materials.
The complaint (pdf), filed March 31 in the Northern District of Ohio, seeks to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways” and to ensure that the company foots the bill for the cleanup.
“When a Norfolk Southern train derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, it released toxins into the air, soil, and water, endangering the health and safety of people in surrounding communities,” Attorney General Merrick Garland noted in a statement. “With this complaint, the Justice Department and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] are acting to pursue justice for the residents of East Palestine and ensure that Norfolk Southern carries the financial burden for the harm it has caused and continues to inflict on the community.”
One of the chemicals that spilled from the derailed train was vinyl chloride, a highly toxic and flammable gas used in the production of plastic. To prevent an explosion, Norfolk Southern chose to conduct a controlled burn of the chemical, releasing it into the air in a thick black cloud that hovered over the area for days.
The effects of the chemicals could also be seen in local waterways, including the Ohio River—a major drinking water source for more than 5 million people—where state officials observed a “plume” of chemicals traveling downstream.
The DOJ’s lawsuit follows the EPA’s issuance of an administrative order on Feb. 21 requiring Norfolk Southern to identify and clean up the soil and water resources contaminated by the chemical spill and pay for the agency’s response costs relating to the order.
“From the very beginning, I pledged to the people of East Palestine that EPA would hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable for jeopardizing the community’s health and safety,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said. “No community should have to go through what East Palestine residents have faced. With today’s action, we are once more delivering on our commitment to ensure Norfolk Southern 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.”
Fight or Flight
Following the derailment, as evacuated East Palestine residents returned to their homes, they began to present with a range of health problems—including rashes, nausea, headaches, burning sensations, and difficulty breathing—as did some local animals.
As a result, some residents fled the town to protect their health.
“We can’t trust the area,” local renter Paul Dabney told CBS 19 News on March 3 as he prepared to move. “We don’t know if it’s safe for our kid.”
Dabney, who lived close to the derailment site, told the outlet that his family members—including a toddler—had developed health issues in the weeks since the crash.
“I don’t see us living here again in the near future any time soon,” he said. “Of course, that depends on what comes out of all of this, but it’s common sense that it’s not just going to go away.”
Meanwhile, other residents have chosen to take legal action against Norfolk Southern, as has the state of Ohio.
“Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said in a March 14 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.”
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw has repeatedly apologized for the derailment, vowing to pay for the cleanup.
“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,” Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker said in a statement.
To date, more than 9 million gallons of wastewater have been removed from the derailment site, according to state officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.