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EPA, DOJ sue Norfolk Southern over East Palestine train derailment


This photo taken with a drone shows portions of a Norfolk and Southern freight train that derailed the night before in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

The Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency have sued the company behind February’s massive train derailment in Ohio for violating federal pollution laws.

The complaint, filed Friday, seeks to ensure that Norfolk Southern Railway Company covers recovery costs from the Feb. 3 derailment, when a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine near the Pennsylvania border. Some train cars caught fire, contaminating the air, land, and water.

“The complaint seeks penalties and injunctive relief for the unlawful discharge of pollutants, oil, and hazardous substances under the Clean Water Act and declaratory judgment on liability for past and future costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA),” the Justice Department said in a press release Friday.

Residents living near the derailment site were evacuated. Lawsuits have already been filed, with some plaintiffs accusing Norfolk Southern of trying to destroy valuable evidence.

Two days after the derailment, as the resulting fire continued to burn, Norfolk Southern vented and burned five rail cars containing vinyl chloride after it was determined that rising temperatures in one of the cars could potentially cause an explosion, the DOJ says. The burn, however, apparently released additional hazardous chemicals into the surrounding area.

The federal agencies are seeking a judgment of civil penalties totaling around $120,000 per day per violation, the complaint says. They also request a declaratory judgment that Norfolk Southern is liable for the costs of the federal government’s response to the disaster, as well as orders to “take such actions as may be necessary” to ensure the safe transport of hazardous materials and to take “appropriate actions” to mitigate “the harm to public health and the environment.”

The press release said that the EPA and other federal agencies are still investigating the circumstances leading up to — and following — the derailment. Depending on the results of those investigations, additional legal action may be taken, the DOJ said.

“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 B. Garland said in the press release. “With this complaint, the Justice Department and the EPA 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.”

“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 Law&Crime. “We are working with urgency, at the direction of the U.S. EPA, and making daily progress. That remains our focus, and we’ll keep working until we make it right.”

Those efforts, according to Spielmaker, include a commitment to provide some $28 million in financial support to East Palestine and the surrounding region, including more than $11.4 million in “direct financial assistance to families.” The company also says that it has recovered and removed “more than 9.4 million gallons of impacted water” along with nearly 13,000 tons of waste soil off-site for disposal.

Read the complaint here.

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