Rail operator Norfolk Southern is now facing a slew of lawsuits over its derailed cargo train in East Palestine, Ohio on Feb. 3 that caused a massive fire and toxic chemical spill.
The rail company’s actions are being criticized as a major environmental and health crisis and the derailment as “wholly preventable,” according to one of numerous lawsuits brought by concerned community members.
After the crash, residents within a mile radius of the crash had to evacuate the area and those within three miles had to shelter in place when toxic chemicals, including vinyl chloride, spilled and caused residents to worry about the health risks of such exposure, the environmental impact on the region and the economic repercussions of evacuating.
“From chemicals that cause nausea and vomiting to a substance responsible for the majority of chemical warfare deaths during World War I, the people of East Palestine and the surrounding communities are facing an unprecedented array of threats to their health,” Attorneys Frank Petosa and Rene Rocha at Morgan & Morgan, who represent a group of plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern, said in a statement on Feb. 15.
So far, eight lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern, alleging negligence and seeking more than $5 million for property damage, economic loss due to evacuation and exposure to toxic chemicals.
“While the lives impacted by this wholly preventable catastrophe may never be the same, we are committed to holding Norfolk Southern accountable for its actions and inactions and securing justice for those whose lives have been disrupted and remain in danger,” the attorneys added.
Here’s what to know:
Norfolk Southern’s response to the spill
The derailed train made up of 50 cars struck East Palestine, a rural village home to about 4,700 people, near Ohio’s Pennsylvania border. Eleven of the cars were carrying hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, a flammable gas and carcinogen recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Spilled chemicals from the derailment killed 3,500 fish in nearby streams, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. One of the lawsuits claims that thousands of residents in the region from Ohio to Pennsylvania could have been exposed to the toxic chemicals.
Authorities monitoring the scene were concerned about the risk of explosions following the derailment. On Feb. 6, Norfolk Southern decided to release and burn additional vinyl chloride, as a controlled release initiative that the company said would help avert the risk of explosions.
The company has said they are continuing to work to remove contaminants from the ground and streams following the spill, as well as monitoring air quality.
“We are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive,” Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a statement Thursday.
About the lawsuits
A lawsuit brought by Morgan & Morgan on behalf of residents in the derailment zone alleges that Norfolk Southern pumped more than 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride into the air. “I’m not sure Norfolk Southern could have come up with a worse plan to address this disaster,” Morgan & Morgan attorney John Morgan said in a statement.
The lawsuits allege that Norfolk Southern chose a cheaper, less safe method to contain the damage by releasing more chemicals, rather than safely and properly cleaning up the spill.
“Residents exposed to vinyl chloride may already be undergoing DNA mutations that could linger for years or even decades before manifesting as terrible and deadly cancers,” Morgan said in a statement. “Norfolk Southern made it worse by essentially blasting the town with chemicals as they focused on restoring train service and protecting their shareholders.”
Norfolk Southern has not commented directly on litigation, but in a statement Thursday, the company said that it will continue the ongoing cleanup efforts—which include removing contaminated soil and liquid—as well as distribute more than $2 million to help with evacuation costs and create a $1 million community fund.
Community leaders in East Palestine organized a town hall on Wednesday to meet and address people’s health and safety concerns from the derailment. Representatives from Norfolk Southern didn’t show up to the event, citing that the company’s employees faced “threats.”
“Unfortunately, after consulting with community leaders, we have become increasingly concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event stemming from the increasing likelihood of the participation of outside parties,” Norfolk Southern said in a statement.
East Palestine authorities told TIME that they had not received any reports of threats against Norfolk Southern employees.
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