COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost announced Tuesday the state has filed a 58-count civil lawsuit in federal court against Norfolk Southern over the train derailment in East Palestine last month.
Yost said he is seeking to hold the company financially responsible for the Feb. 3 incident that caused the release of over 1 million gallons of hazardous chemicals, “recklessly endangering” the health of residents and Ohio’s natural resources.
“Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Yost said. “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.”
During a press conference, Yost said while Norfolk Southern has repeatedly said it would make the situation right, this lawsuit will make sure the company keeps its word.
The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Ohio, cites Norfolk Southern’s escalating accident rate. Yost’s office says the rate has risen 80% in the past decade and at least 20 derailments by the company have involved chemical discharges since 2015.
“The derailment was entirely avoidable and the direct result of Norfolk Southern’s practice of putting its own profits above the health, safety and welfare of the communities in which Norfolk Southern operates,” the lawsuit says.
Norfolk Southern is cited for numerous violations of various federal and state environmental laws and Ohio Common Laws. The attorney general’s office provided the following list what these allegations fall under:
- The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)
- Ohio’s Hazardous Waste Law
- Ohio’s Water Pollution Control Law
- Ohio’s Solid Waste Law
- Ohio’s Air Pollution Control Law
- Common Law Negligence
- Common Law Public Nuisance
- Common Law Trespass
Yost said the Common Law violation include negligence counts relating to defects in the train and its operation. The nuisance counts involve the chemical releases into the air, public waterways and public land and the trespass counts address contamination of natural resources.
The lawsuit states the violations resulted in an unknown volume of pollutants being released posting substantial or long-term threats to human health and the environment.
The chemical release from at least 39 cars made their way into Sulfur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, the Ohio River and/or some still-unknown Ohio waterways, according to the lawsuit.
It is also stated the derailment “has caused substantial damage to the regional economy of the state of Ohio, its citizens and its businesses. The citizens of the region have been displaced, their lives interrupted and their businesses shuttered.”
Yost says Ohio is entitled to recover the lost taxes and other economic losses and the state is seeking relief, civil penalties, costs and damages including:
- A declaratory judgment holding Norfolk Southern responsible.
- Recovery of costs and damages under the CERCLA and Ohio law for emergency response.
- Repayment of damages under common law – notably, natural resource damages, property damages, and economic harm to the state and its residents.
- Repayment of costs under common law, including present and future costs incurred by the state in responding to the emergency, providing public services, preventing future harm to the environment and public health, restoring natural resources, and abating the nuisance.
- Civil penalties under state environmental laws.
- Repayment of court costs.
The complaint is seeking a minimum for federal damages of $75,000, but the attorney general’s office says the damages will far exceed that as the situation continues to unfold.
Yost is asking the court to require Norfolk Southern to conduct future monitoring of soil and groundwater at the site, the surrounding areas and beyond.
Additionally, the lawsuit would prohibit the company from disposing of additional waste at the site and from polluting Ohio waters.
Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw apologized before Congress last week for the impact the derailment has had on East Palestine and the surrounding communities, but he didn't make specific commitments to pay for long-term health and economic harm.
The railroad has promised more than $20 million so far to help the Ohio community recover while also announcing several voluntary safety upgrades. A message seeking comment on the lawsuit was left with Norfolk Southern.
Many in East Palestine remain outraged at the the railroad and worried about what will become of the village.
Those fears include concerns about their long-term health, their house values and the economic future for local businesses.
Statement from Norfolk Southern following Yost's announcement
Every day since the derailment, our goal has been to make it right for the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities. 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.
We are also listening closely to concerns from the community about whether there could be long-term impacts from the derailment. This week, we met with Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost to discuss three additional programs we plan to develop in conjunction with his office and other community leaders and stakeholders.
Many residents are worried about what they will do if health impacts related to the derailment are discovered years from now. We appreciate Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s leadership and advocacy on this point. To date, environmental monitoring continues to show the air and drinking water are safe. To provide an additional level of assurance, we are committed to a solution that addresses long-term health risks through the creation of a long-term medical compensation fund.
We also know residents are worried about their home values. While we are working with local leaders on investments to support the community’s long-term prosperity, we understand these concerns. We are committed to working with the community to provide tailored protection for home sellers if their property loses value due to the impact of the derailment.
Finally, we have heard the community’s interest in programs that protect drinking water over the long term. We are prepared to work with stakeholders toward that goal as well.
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.