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DOJ sues Norfolk Southern for alleged environmental violations in East Palestine derailment

Marilyn Nieves/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — The Justice Department has filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern seeking to hold the railroad company accountable for the derailment last month in East Palestine, Ohio and its toxic aftermath, according to court records.

The civil lawsuit on behalf of the EPA seeks injunctive relief and monetary penalties from Norfolk Southern for the response costs to the Feb. 3 derailment, including a nearly $65,000 fine for every day it violated clean water laws.

On Feb. 3, about 50 cars from the train derailed in a fiery crash on the outskirts of East Palestine. Concerned about an explosion, officials ordered an evacuation and then proceeded with a controlled release and burn of vinyl chloride.

The derailment and its aftermath have sparked a firestorm of criticism and concerns from residents about their health.

In the suit, the DOJ alleges Norfolk Southern violated provisions of the Clean Water Act by discharging pollutants and oil into a local waterway and reduced spending on repairs and maintenance.

The filing also seeks to single out the actions of Norfolk Southern’s corporate board, noting its executives received approximately 80% of their compensation for performance metrics like increasing revenue and reducing the expenses of its railroad subsidiaries. As a result, the DOJ says that over the past four years there has been “a stark contrast between the increases in operating income and the drop in railroad operating costs.”

“The drop in operating costs includes reductions in spending to repair, service, and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections, and pay engine crews and train crews,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit goes on to provide further details about the crash itself. At least 11 of the 38 rail cars involved in the crash were carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, isobutylene and benzene residue. Five additional rail cars were carrying oil.

Federal officials note that the EPA is continuing to conduct soil and air sampling around the site of the crash. The Ohio Department of National Resources has reported that thousands of aquatic animals were killed in the weeks since the crash in a five-mile span of waterway from the site of the derailment.

The complaint asks for a judge to order Norfolk Southern to pay civil penalties of $64,618 per each day it violated provisions of the Clean Water Act and another $55,808 per day or $2,232 per barrel of oil or unit of hazardous substances spilled. The lawsuit also seeks an injunction ordering Norfolk Southern to take action to ensure it will safely transport oil and hazardous materials moving forward and continue to assist in efforts to mitigate the harm caused by the crash in East Palestine.

Norfolk Southern must respond to the suit in 21 days and it has not yet done so.

The company said in a statement about the lawsuit: “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. 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.”

Norfolk Southern has pledged funds for the community and school district and in an open letter on Feb. 13 said it “will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

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