Ohio Attorney General Sues Norfolk Southern Over Derailment

The suit, filed in federal court, seeks to force the company to pay civil penalties, costs and damages after the train derailment and controlled burn of toxic chemicals.

Volunteers distributed free water to residents as a Norfolk Southern train passed behind them in East Palestine, Ohio, last month.
Credit...Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

The Ohio attorney general filed a 58-count federal lawsuit against Norfolk Southern on Tuesday, charging that the derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals last month in the village of East Palestine was a product of the company’s negligence and recklessness, posing serious health risks to people in the area and causing “substantial damage to the regional economy.”

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, accuses Norfolk Southern of numerous violations of state and federal environmental laws; it also raises claims of public nuisance and trespass. It seeks to force the company to pay civil penalties, costs and damages to reimburse the state for economic losses and harm to natural resources.

“This derailment was entirely avoidable,” the attorney general, Dave Yost, said at a news conference in Columbus announcing the suit. “I’m concerned that Norfolk Southern is putting profits for their own company above the health and safety of the cities and communities that they operate in.”

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said it had been in discussions with Mr. Yost’s office about creating programs that would conduct long-term environmental monitoring, compensate residents for medical costs and address losses in property values caused by the derailment.

“We look forward to working toward a final resolution with Attorney General Yost and others as we coordinate with his office, community leaders, and other stakeholders to finalize the details of these programs,” the statement said.

The legal consequences for Norfolk Southern began piling up almost immediately after the train derailed on the night of Feb. 3. Nearly two dozen private lawsuits have been filed by local residents in Ohio federal court. Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania has asked the attorney general of his state, whose border with Ohio is near the derailment site, to investigate whether criminal charges are warranted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under the authority of a four-decade-old law, has ordered Norfolk Southern to clean up any contamination from the derailment and pay all the costs.

The company has been scrutinized not only for the derailment but also for its role in the decision three days later, backed by local and state officials, to release and burn thousands of gallons of vinyl chloride from the train to prevent a catastrophic explosion. Since then, federal and state officials have conducted tests on the water, soil and air and so far have not found significant levels of vinyl chloride and other dangerous chemicals; still, some residents and independent experts have raised concerns about the reliability of those tests.

The suit brought by Ohio, which cites the same law used by the E.P.A., details Norfolk Southern’s “extensive and tragic history of derailments and releases of hazardous materials,” recounting specific accidents and saying that the accident rate on the company’s trains “has nearly doubled in the past 10 years.”

Listing some of the hazardous chemicals that were aboard the train, the suit described the potential effects of each on people and animals.

Exposure to vinyl chloride, the suit said, may lead to “changes in liver structure or liver cancer.” The burning of vinyl chloride, which was conducted with the approval of local officials when it appeared that one or more of the rail cars was in danger of exploding, may have caused the formation of dioxins, which “are highly toxic and carcinogenic, and extremely persistent in the environment.” The E.P.A. has ordered Norfolk Southern to test for dioxins.

While not listing all of the toxic materials, the suit said that many of them had the potential to cause “myriad” health problems in humans and animals, “including but not limited to headaches, dizziness, nausea, cancer and harm to the nervous system.”

The suit also charged that the derailment “caused substantial damage to the regional economy,” displacing people who had to leave East Palestine first under a mandatory evacuation order, and then out of concern for their own safety. It predicted that the accident could harm tourism and the sale of locally grown produce in the area “for years to come.”

In his remarks, Mr. Yost said he had been having productive conversations with Norfolk Southern about the recovery process.

“The company has repeatedly said that it wants to make it right,” he said. “Our lawsuit is designed to make sure that they keep their promise.”