COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The United States Department of Justice is suing Norfolk Southern in response to February’s toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Ohio on Friday morning, about two months after the Feb. 3 disaster and two weeks after the state filed its own lawsuit against the rail company. In the complaint, attorneys representing the federal government seek steep fines for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, along with money to cover the cost of the massive cleanup effort that continues in East Palestine.
According to the complaint, 38 rail cars derailed. Eleven of those cars contained hazardous materials that are 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” at high levels of exposure. Another five cars were carrying oil, the lawsuit said, in addition to a car that contained fuel additives and one that was empty, but had residue of liquefied petroleum gas inside.
Cinnamon Carlarne, an environmental lawyer who serves as an Associate Dean at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law, said we still haven’t learned the full scope of the damage caused by the fiery and toxic derailment, but lawsuits like this one — and one filed by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost — will help answer those questions.
“We’re still really learning a lot about the company itself and its practices past and present that may have affected this disaster,” Carlarne said.
The DOJ’s lawsuit claims Norfolk Southern violated the Clean Water Act in two ways: by discharging pollutants into waters of the U.S., and by discharging oil or hazardous substances into the waters of the U.S.
The complaint asks for more than $64,000 per violation per day for the pollutants, which Carlarne said will depend on the number of cars leaking the pollutants and how long those pollutants were leaked. The complaint also seeks $55,808 per day, or $2,232 per barrel of oil, for the hazardous substances.
Additionally, the DOJ claims Norfolk Southern is liable for the costs of the cleanup and response under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act., which Carlarne said, “is designed to deal with big disasters like this.”
In response to the lawsuit, Norfolk Southern issued a statement, writing, “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.”
The company noted that it has committed nearly $28 million East Palestine and the surrounding area.
“I think this is probably just the beginning of what we’re going to see, which is a complex litigation world surrounding this disaster,” Carlarne said. “And my hope is that this is the start of a much more careful investigation of what happened (and) why it happened.”
View the DOJ’s full lawsuit below.