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Ohio sues Norfolk Southern over toxic train derailment

A plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 6 after a controlled release from a derailed Norfolk Southern train. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)
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Ohio sued Norfolk Southern on Tuesday over a train derailment that caused an environmental disaster, displaced people from their homes and led to national political backlash.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost (R) announced the federal lawsuit in a news conference Tuesday afternoon, saying his state “shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence.”

A Norfolk Southern train was carrying hazardous chemicals such as vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate when it derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3. The cars caught fire, and surrounding residents were ordered to evacuate their homes. Authorities released a toxic plume of chemicals three days later to avoid a potential “major explosion,” and the cloud traveled at least as far as neighboring Pennsylvania.

The 58-count lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. district court in northeastern Ohio is seeking at least $75,000 in damages, Yost said, but that amount will balloon because authorities are still calculating how much they’ve spent on the disaster.

“The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come, and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water and soil,” Yost said.

In response to the lawsuit, a Norfolk Southern spokesman said the company is committed to cleaning up the town and providing financial assistance to those affected by the derailment. The company is also aware of residents’ concerns including their long-term health, property values and access to potable water, spokesman Connor Spielmaker told The Washington Post in an email.

“Every day since the derailment, our goal has been to make it right for the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities,” Spielmaker said. “We are making progress every day cleaning the site safely and thoroughly, providing financial assistance to residents and businesses that have been affected, and investing to help East Palestine and the communities around it thrive.”

Two weeks after the derailment, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was taking control of the cleanup oversight under pressure to respond more urgently to the train derailment. Norfolk Southern will have to fund those efforts, the agency said late last month.

Before Ohio derailment, Norfolk Southern lobbied against safety rules

All the while, residents have feared for their safety.

Immediately after the derailment, federal and local officials told people in East Palestine that their water was safe. Later they urged them to drink bottled water.

Heavy chemical smells were detectable long after authorities said the air was safe to breathe.

People who live or work in the area have blamed the derailment and subsequent release of chemicals for health problems, animal deaths and potential property devaluation. Some have brought civil lawsuits.

There is little evidence that the derailment and its contamination will pose long-term health risks, environmental authorities have said, but residents want more testing.

The disaster response has become a political flash point, with Republicans seizing on the disaster to criticize President Biden and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Democrats have aimed their ire at the railroad.

Senators scrutinize communication lapses in toxic Ohio train disaster

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan H. Shaw apologized for the disaster in a congressional hearing Thursday and said he runs a “safe railroad.” The company has spent $21 million to support communities in eastern Ohio and nearby western Pennsylvania, Shaw told the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. He did not specify what cleanup and safety measures Norfolk Southern would offer.

At Tuesday’s news conference, Yost said that he has been discussing compensation with Norfolk Southern attorneys and that the lawsuit was an additional way to hold the company accountable.

“This was an epic disaster, and it’s going to take some significant dollars to get the people of East Palestine to where they were before February 3,” Yost said.

Scott Dance, Nick Keppler, Justine McDaniel and Timothy Puko contributed to this report.

The Ohio train derailment and chemical spill

The latest: Senators questioned Norfolk Southern’s CEO on rail safety records as Ohio is suing the freight company. In February, the National Transportation Safety Board released a preliminary report on the Ohio train derailment.

What are the health risks of the chemical spill? One toxic gas, vinyl chloride, was burned after the derailment, sending various toxins and chemicals into the air. The EPA is handling the disaster response.

The politics: Amid a partisan divide over the disaster response, former president Donald Trump and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited the derailment site.

Who is impacted? The Biden administration is taking heat for not doing enough to help, while Ohio residents are angry after Norfolk Southern backed out of a town hall addressing the response. The derailment also killed more than 43,000 aquatic animals in the area. Here’s what to know about the derailment’s toxic plume.