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U.S. Department of Justice sues Norfolk Southern, claiming Clean Water Act violations

Aerial view of derailed trains lying in dirt beside railroad tracks in East Palestine, Ohio. An excavator and other trucks are parked nearby.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Derailed Norfolk Southern train cars lie in the dirt beside the railroad tracks in East Palestine on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. The derailment is now the center of a lawsuit alleging that Norfolk Southern violated the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against Norfolk Southern over alleged violations of the Clean Water Act.

The lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency claims the company unlawfully discharged pollutants and hazardous materials in the aftermath of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

The complaint seeks penalties and an injunctive relief for unlawful discharge of hazardous materials under the Clean Water Act, a press release from the U.S. EPA stated.

The complaint also claims the company is liable for past and future costs related to the derailment under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The company is already under a Unilateral Administrative Order from the U.S. EPA requiring it to develop and implement cleanup plans and pay the U.S. EPA for costs related to the cleanup.

“From the very beginning, I pledged to the people of East Palestine that EPA would hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable for jeopardizing the community’s health and safety,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a press release. "With today’s action, we are once more delivering on our commitment to ensure Norfolk Southern cleans up the mess they made and pays for the damage they have inflicted as we work to ensure this community can feel safe at home again.”

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern.
Gene J. Puskar
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.

The train derailment upended life in the small town of East Palestine on the border of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The derailment, which is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, resulted in piles of burning cars and contaminants being released into the community's air, water and soil.

The community was evacuated when concern rose of a potential explosion in one of the tanker cars carrying the carcinogen vinyl chloride. The train was also carrying ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, isobutylene and benzene residue.

To avoid an explosion, crews performed a controlled release and burn of the vinyl chloride in five rail cars, which created a huge mushroom cloud looming over the area.

The U.S. and Ohio EPAs have been on the ground since the accident to monitor the community. They have maintained that air and drinking water are safe, despite residents continuing to complain of symptoms they say are related to the derailment.

Since Feb. 21, the U.S. EPA has been overseeing Norfolk Southern's cleanup efforts. According to the agency, as of March 29, 9.2 million gallons of liquid wastewater have been removed from the site, as have 12,932 tons of contaminated soil.

"The United States will pursue further actions as warranted in the future as its investigatory work proceeds," a U.S. EPA press release stated.

Norfolk Southern is also being sued by the state of Ohio. The lawsuit alleges the derailment caused more than a million gallons of hazardous materials to be released, endangering both residents and the environment. It further alleges Norfolk Southern violated numerous federal laws, Ohio hazardous waste and and solid waste laws and air and water pollution laws.

Dozens of East Palestine residents are also suing Norfolk Southern. A federal judge is expected to decide next week which team of law firms will lead the class-action lawsuit.

During the release of its preliminary findings, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said the accident was preventable.

Abigail Bottar covers Akron, Canton, Kent and the surrounding areas for Ideastream Public Media.