The federal government is suing Norfolk Southern following a February train derailment that led to environmental concerns and evacuations of a rural Ohio town near the Pennsylvania border.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in federal district court in Ohio, the Department of Justice said it wants the Atlanta-based railroad operator to take responsibility for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways and to ensure it pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup.”
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, says Norfolk Southern violated parts of the federal Clean Water Act.
The complaint also says the railroad has reduced operating costs by cutting back on inspections, repairs and crew pay.
“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,” company spokesman Connor Spielmaker said. “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.”
The federal lawsuit is the latest attempt to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the derailment, which upended the lives of East Palestine residents and nearby communities along the Ohio-Pennsylvania border. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost sued the company earlier this month to recoup the state’s costs and ensure Norfolk Southern conducts long-term soil and groundwater monitoring.
The train derailed in East Palestine on Feb. 3 moments after crew members became aware of an overheated wheel bearing and tried to stop, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB also found problems with some of the train’s pressure relief devices, which regulate the internal pressure of tank cars by releasing material when under pressure.
Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, which the railroad later vented and burned to prevent an explosion. The wreck and subsequent controlled temporarily forced people out of their homes, and residents continue to worry about the long-term health and economic effects of the derailment.
The lawsuit said that high levels of exposure to vinyl chloride and other hazard materials carried by the train have been linked to “an increased risk of cancer; risks to fetal development; damage to organs like the liver, kidneys, lungs, and skin; and other health conditions.”
The EPA is still monitoring the area where the derailment occurred and testing of the soil and air and monitoring of the air is ongoing. The lawsuit also says that thousands of aquatic animals were killed in waterways as a result of the release of contaminants into the water.
In response to the derailment, Republicans and Democrats who represent Ohio in Congress are pushing multiple bills to strengthen rail safety and increase penalties for companies that break the rules.