EPA May Force Norfolk Southern to Pay Train Derailment Chemical Cleanup Costs

Trenches used to burn off hazardous chemicals from the toxic train derailment may have left behind contaminated soil and water, the EPA warns

Norfolk Southern may be on the hook for environmental clean-up damages after a train derailment in Ohio caused pressurized chemical tankers to erupt in flames, and led to the evacuation of nearly 2,000 area residents.

The Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment occurred near East Palestine, Ohio on February 3, when a third of the 150 freight cars left the tracks, several of which carried vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical. About 1,900 residents were evacuated due to fears of an explosion which could release the dangerous chemicals into the air.

Fortunately, the fires were suppressed and there are no reported injuries in the immediate aftermath of the crash, but on February 10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a General Notice of Potential Liability (PDF) to Norfolk Southern Railway Company’s deputy general counsel, Matt Gernand, warning that the company may be responsible for cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).

“EPA has spent, or is considering spending, public funds to investigate and control releases of hazardous substances or potential releases of hazardous substances at the Site,” the notice states. “Based on information presently available to EPA, EPA has determined that Norfolk Southern Railway Company may be responsible under CERCLA for cleanup of the Site or costs EPA has incurred in cleaning up the Site.”

Toxic Train Derailment Cleanup Activities

The EPA indicates that, to date, it has taken a number of actions that Norfolk Southern may have to pay for, including air monitoring around the site of the train derailment, the surrounding community, and for residential air monitoring which is part of the re-occupancy plan. The EPA indicates it has already conducted some air monitoring and water sampling.

In addition, the EPA’s own observations revealed that materials released during the toxic train derailment were detected and observed in nearby waters, including Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, North Fork Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek, and the Ohio River. The EPA reports materials were seen entering storm drains and that multiple rail cars and tankers were derailed, breached and caught fire while containing vinyl chloride, as well as ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, ethylhexyl acrylate, isobutylene and butyl acrylate.

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The EPA also notes that five of the rail cars filled with vinyl chloride were intentionally breached and diverted to an excavated trench and burned off. This left behind areas of contaminated soil and free liquids in the burn trenches which the agency says were potentially covered and filled in.

Vinyl chloride is used to make polyvinyl chloride, more commonly known as PVC. It is a hard plastic resin used in pipes, wires, packaging and cable coatings. While PVC itself has not been linked to an increased cancer risk, vinyl chloride, often a component of tobacco smoke, is linked to an increased risk of various liver cancers, lung cancers, brain cancer, lymphomas and leukemia.

The EPA has asked Norfolk Southern to reply to the letter, indicating its willingness to pay for the response activities needed to address contamination caused by the train accident.

Norfolk Southern Train Derailment Class Action Lawsuit

Shortly after the accident, a toxic train derailment class action lawsuit was filed against Norfolk Southern, representing residents and businesses nearby which were affected by the accident.

The lawsuit, filed last Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, indicates that not only were people forced from their homes suddenly, leaving many to sleep in government-provided shelters, numerous businesses were closed and the area around the evacuation zone was blocked off. The plaintiffs say their properties may be uninhabitable for an extended period of time.

The plaintiffs present claims of negligence, private nuisance, and trespass, and seeks for Norfolk Southern to pay for medical monitoring of the potential side effects of vinyl chloride exposure, including screening for liver cancer, and seeks damages for medical costs, wage loss, personal injuries, and loss of property value.


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