Ohio sues Norfolk Southern over East Palestine derailment


Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost speaks in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 2020.

Julie Carr Smyth | AP

Ohio sued rail company Norfolk Southern over the derailment of a train carrying toxic materials in East Palestine last month, the state’s attorney general announced Tuesday.

The 58-count lawsuit alleges several violations of state and federal law pertaining to hazardous waste, water pollution, air pollution and common law negligence, among others, said Dave Yost, the state’s attorney general, during a press briefing. The state is seeking damages, civil penalties and a “declaratory judgement that Norfolk Southern is responsible,” he said.

“This derailment was entirely avoidable,” Yost said, adding that Norfolk Southern has seen an 80% increase in accidents over the last decade. “The fallout from this highly preventable accident is going to reverberate through Ohio and Ohioans for many years to come.”

Yost is seeking repayment of the state’s costs including for natural resource damages, emergency responses and economic harm to the state and its residents. Yost said some businesses have lost significant revenues as people continue to avoid the area.

The state’s complaint asks for minimum federal damages of $75,000 “as a formality” but notes “the damages will far exceed that minimum as the situation in East Palestine continues to unfold.”

According to the complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, the derailment is one of a “long string” of Norfolk Southern derailments and hazmat incidents. Since 2015, at least 20 Norfolk Southern derailments involved chemical discharge, the state claims.

Representatives for Norfolk Southern were not immediately available to comment.

On Feb. 3, a Norfolk Southern freight train with 11 tank cars carrying hazardous materials derailed near Ohio’s border with Pennsylvania and subsequently ignited, spurring concerns of environmental and health impacts for the surrounding community.

This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.

Gene J. Puskar | AP

Rail workers have reported feeling ill during clean up on the derailment site. Yost said Tuesday he heard from people who experienced sore throats and other irritations while visiting the site, and noted he had felt “discomfort” himself while on location.

The complaint said substances from 39 rail cars were released into the ground, storm water infrastructure and surface waters that eventually empty into the Ohio River.

Yost said “there’s lots of things that we don’t know yet” regarding whether the chemical spill will have long-term impacts for farmers and their livestock.

Yost has asked that Norfolk Southern conduct future soil and groundwater monitoring at the derailment location and surrounding areas, and that the company be prohibited from disposing of any additional waste from the site.

“A big point of this lawsuit is to make sure that those long-term effects are not only not forgotten but they are addressed,” Yost said.

Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw last week told a Senate panel the company plans to clean the site fully in an effort to “make it right,” adding he is “deeply sorry for the impact this derailment has had on the people of East Palestine and surrounding communities.”

Shaw also said Norfolk Southern will provide financial assistance to affected residents and first responders near the derailment site, pledging more than $21 million in reimbursements and investments.

“This was an epic disaster, and the cleanup is going to be expensive,” Yost said Tuesday. “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 Feb. 3.”