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Justice Dept. Files Lawsuit Against Norfolk Southern Rail Over East Palestine Train Derailment

Officials want the company to pay for the cleanup and face additional civil penalties

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing Norfolk Southern Railway following a train derailment that spilled hazardous materials in East Palestine, Ohio in early February.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and federal officials are asking the court to hold the company accountable for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways,” to ensure the company pays for the cost of the cleanup, and to impose civil penalties, according to a copy of the legal filing.

On Feb. 3 at about 8:54 pm, a Norfolk Southern train derailed after a wheel bearing on its 23rd railcar overheated, triggering an alarm and causing the train’s engineer to apply breaks to stop the train, according to a preliminary report from the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB). The train’s emergency braking system was also engaged.

After the crew observed smoke and fire, they notified officials of a possible derailment, the report stated. Firefighters contained the fire, but five tank cars carrying 115,580 gallons of the toxic chemical vinyl chloride concerned authorities because of the risk of explosion, so officials decided on a controlled burn of the chemical as a mitigation strategy, spreading the toxic material for hundreds of miles.

“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 a 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.”

Federal officials say the train had defects in its pressure relief devices and raised questions about the bearing and whether Norfolk Southern’s safety sensors and procedures were satisfactory.

The train also spilled into the soil additional toxic chemicals, including butyl acrylate, ethylhexyl acrylate, and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether.

In late March, EPA Director Anne Vogel told a U.S. House committee that the cleanup effort could take two more months.

“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 S. Regan said in the DOJ statement. “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.”

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