The state of Ohio is suing the company whose freight train derailed and caused the release of more than 1 million gallons of hazardous chemicals last month, officials announced Tuesday.
In a 106-page civil complaint filed in US District Court, prosecutors accuse Norfolk Southern Corporation of violating various state environmental and pollution laws. The lawsuit seeks an order requiring the railway company to reimburse the state for the costs of its emergency response and to pay for damages to the environment and property, as well as economic harm done to the state and residents.
The complaint states that the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine was just the latest in a series of accidents that have led to the release of toxic materials. According to the state, Norfolk Southern's accident rate has increased by 80% over 10 years, and at least 20 of its derailments since 2015 have included chemical spills.
"This derailment was entirely avoidable," Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said during a news conference, "and I’m concerned that Norfolk and Southern may be putting profits for their own company above the health and safety of the cities and communities that they operate in."
Since the derailment, residents, officials, and environmental health experts have raised concerns about the potential public health impacts. According to the state, 38 railcars derailed, including 11 tank cars containing hazardous materials, such as vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen that's used to produce plastics like PVC pipes. People reported experiencing headaches, chest tightness, and severe coughs following the derailment. Others said their animals became sick or died in the aftermath.
In addition to spreading in the air, the chemicals ended up in local waterways, including the Ohio River and the Sulphur Run. Yost said that during a visit with East Palestine officials a few weeks ago at the village hall, which is built over the stream, he heard from employees who had developed sore throats and personally experienced "some discomfort" himself while in the building.
Yost said the purpose of the lawsuit is to make sure Norfolk Southern keeps its promise "to make it right" and also address the potential long-term effects on the economy, environment, and public health.
"The fallout from this highly preventable accident is going to reverberate through Ohio [and] Ohioans for many years to come," he said.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Norfolk Southern Corporation reiterated that it is committed to continuing to clean the accident site, providing financial assistance to residents and businesses affected by the derailment, and investing in the community's future.
Representatives from the company met with the attorney general on Monday and shared their plans to start funds to compensate residents for losses in real estate values and address long-term health risks created by the derailment and spill. The company said it is also interested in working with the community to protect drinking water.
"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 company said.
When asked how much the total damages could end up being, Yost said he didn't know yet, but that it would be "lots."
"This was an epic disaster, and the cleanup is going to be expensive, and it's going to take some significant dollars to put the people of East Palestine back as close as possible to the position they were before February 3rd," he said.