Ohio has filed a federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern over last month’s toxic chemical derailment in East Palestine, Attorney General Dave Yost announced Tuesday.
Yost outlined the 58-count complaint, saying that Norfolk Southern violated numerous state, federal and Ohio common laws and violated the state’s Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).
“This derailment was entirely avoidable,” Yost said at a news conference Tuesday. “I’m concerned that Norfolk Southern may be putting profits for their own company above the health and safety of the cities and communities they operate in.”
The attorney general went on to point out that the derailment “caused the release of over 1 million gallons of hazardous chemicals and it endangered both the health and area residents of Ohio’s natural resources.”
After the derailment, the dangerous chemical vinyl chloride was released and burned to prevent a potentially deadly explosion, and other chemicals of concern that were being transported are feared to have leaked into the surrounding ecosystem in Ohio and Pennsylvania – with potentially damaging health consequences.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw told a US Senate hearing last week, “I am determined to make this right. Norfolk Southern will clean the site safely, thoroughly and with urgency. You have my personal commitment. Norfolk Southern will get the job done and help East Palestine thrive.”
Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders pressed Shaw on health care needs in East Palestine, asking if his vow to help the community following the train derailment will include paying for health care costs for residents.
Shaw did not make a definitive commitment, but said that “everything is on the table.”
In a statement Tuesday, the rail company said it is making progress in cleaning the derailment site, providing funds to affected residents and businesses, and investing in the community.
“We are also listening closely to concerns from the community about whether there could be long-term impacts from the derailment,” the release from Norfolk Southern spokesperson Connor Spielmaker says. “This week, we met with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to discuss three additional programs we plan to develop in conjunction with his office and other community leaders and stakeholders. “
Yost said Tuesday the lawsuit is designed to make sure Norfolk Southern keeps its promises.
Some residents and cleanup workers have reported health concerns.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s office earlier this month released the results of health assessment surveys conducted in East Palestine, revealing the most common symptoms reported by residents since the derailment include headaches, anxiety and coughing.
Other symptoms reported were fatigue, irritation, pain and a burning sensation on the skin, according to a statement from the governor’s office March 3.
The most common symptom among the nearly 170 people observed by a doctor was headache – 74% of the respondents. Sixty-four percent of respondents reported anxiety, 61% reported coughing, 58% reported fatigue/tiredness and 52% reported irritation/pain/burning of the skin.
On Tuesday, the company said, “Many residents are worried about what they will do if health impacts related to the derailment are discovered years from now. We appreciate Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s leadership and advocacy on this point. To date, environmental monitoring continues to show the air and drinking water are safe.”
A long-term medical compensation fund has been created, Norfolk Southern said.
Norfolk Southern previously announced new safety measures for its rail network, including revamping its hot bearing detector network.
“Hot bearing” or “hot box” detectors use infrared sensors to record the temperatures of railroad bearings as trains pass by. If they sense an overheated bearing, the detectors trigger an alarm, which notifies the train crew they should stop and inspect the rail car for a potential failure.
After the February 3 fiery derailment in East Palestine, investigators discovered hot bearing sensors detected a wheel bearing heating up miles before it eventually failed – but didn’t alert the train’s crew until it was too late, according to a February 23 preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The lawsuit alleges violations of Ohio’s hazardous waste, water pollution, solid waste, and air pollution control laws.
The state is looking for repayment of costs based on common law “including present and future costs incurred by the state in responding to the emergency, providing public services and preventing future harm to the environment and public health, restoring natural resources and abating the nuisance,” Yost said.
The claim, filed in federal district court in the Northern District of Ohio’s Eastern Division, says “damages will far exceed (the $75,000) minimum as the situation in East Palestine continues to unfold.”
Additionally, the lawsuit seeks to prohibit Norfolk Southern from disposing additional waste at the site of the derailment and would require Norfolk Southern “to conduct future monitoring of soil and groundwater at the derailment location, the surrounding areas and beyond,” according to Yost’s statement.