Ohio sues Norfolk Southern over East Palestine toxic train derailment

COLUMBUS, Ohio — (COLUMBUS, Ohio) -- Ohio is suing Norfolk Southern Railway over last month's toxic train derailment in East Palestine, state Attorney General Dave Yost announced Tuesday.

The 58-count complaint, filed in federal court on Tuesday, alleges the railway operator violated various federal and state environmental laws and Ohio Common Law, "recklessly endangering" the health of residents and Ohio's natural resources, Yost's office said.

"This derailment was entirely avoidable and I'm concerned that Norfolk Southern may be putting profits for their own company above the health and safety of the cities and communities that they operate in," Yost said at a press briefing announcing the lawsuit.

About 50 cars of a freight train operated by Norfolk Southern derailed in a fiery crash on Feb. 3, sending toxic chemicals into the air, soil and creeks in the area. Amid concerns an explosion could take place, officials intentionally released and burned toxic vinyl chloride from five rail cars, sending a large ball of fire and a plume of black smoke filled with contaminants high into the sky.

The lawsuit alleges illegal disposal of hazardous waste, failure to have a contingency plan and unauthorized discharge to waters of the state, among other claims for relief, court records show.

Yost said the lawsuit seeks to address any economic and long-term health impacts that residents of East Palestine may experience due to the derailment. He said he sat down with Norfolk Southern officials on Monday to discuss possible compensation, including a fund to compensate for long-term losses to real estate values and a fund to address any "delayed" health impacts.

"This lawsuit is designed to make sure that Norfolk Southern keeps their word to the people of East Palestine and the people of Ohio," Yost said.

Yost said it was too soon to determine damages due to the derailment, as the emergency response is ongoing.

"This was an epic disaster and the cleanup is going to be expensive and it's going to take some significant dollars to put the people of East Palestine back as close as possible to the position they were in before Feb. 3," he said.

Several East Palestine residents have filed a class-action against Norfolk Southern, seeking punitive damages as well as a fund for medical monitoring and testing, among other relief. Yost said the state's lawsuit is focused on seeking damages to "the state of Ohio, to its environment, to its economy, as well as the broader damage to the people," and that the varied lawsuits "are about different consequences of the same fact."

In response to the lawsuit announcement, Norfolk Southern released a statement that said it is "listening closely to concerns from the community about whether there could be long-term impacts from the derailment."

The company said it is working to develop programs that create a long-term medical compensation fund, offer protection to home sellers in the area and protect drinking water "over the long term."

"We look forward to working toward a final resolution with Attorney General Yost and others as we coordinate with his office, community leaders, and other stakeholders to finalize the details of these programs," the statement said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Norfolk Southern to pay for the cleanup of the train wreck and chemical release.

The incident has caused lingering concerns and anxiety for residents of East Palestine, located near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border, as well as increased scrutiny of railway regulations and calls for reform.

Jennifer Homendy, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the incident, called the derailment "100% preventable."

The NTSB announced last week it would launch a special investigation of Norfolk Southern's safety and culture. The last time the NTSB made such a move was in 2014, when it investigated Metro-North for several significant accidents.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration also announced last week that it will conduct a safety assessment of Norfolk Southern's railway safety operations "following multiple safety incidents."

Washington lawmakers grilled Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw on Thursday about the East Palestine disaster during their first hearing on railroad safety held in the wake of the incident.

On the eve of his Senate testimony, Shaw said the Atlanta-based company was committed to improve rail safety in a Washington Post op-ed.

"We are not waiting to act" while the NTSB investigates what happened in East Palestine and probing Norfolk Southern's safety culture overall, Shaw wrote.

"We are firmly committed to the residents of East Palestine and the surrounding communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania," Shaw continued. "Many of the people I've met are angry, scared and concerned about the future. I understand their skepticism that a big corporation such as Norfolk Southern will do the right thing, and we are determined to earn their trust."

Norfolk Southern unveiled a safety plan last week based on preliminary findings of the NTSB's ongoing investigation, which has so far indicated that an overheated wheel bearing likely caused the East Palestine derailment.

Since the Feb. 3 derailment, Norfolk Southern said it has committed nearly $8 million to the community of East Palestine "with more to come."

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro has also said the railway operator has committed to pay more than $7.3 million for damages to residents and first responders in Beaver and Lawrence counties due to the derailment.

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