Skip to content

US sues railway company over Ohio derailment, contamination

The government seeks costs of cleanup and civil penalties of $120,426 a day under two sections of the Clean Water Act

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on screen, questions Alan Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp., during a March 9 hearing on the train derailment  in East Palestine, Ohio.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on screen, questions Alan Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp., during a March 9 hearing on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The federal government filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Corp. over last month’s train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, pointing out that the company’s operating costs on safety-related measures have dropped over the past four years.

The Justice Department filed the complaint Thursday on behalf of the EPA in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio. It states that hazardous materials were emitted into the air and spilled onto the ground, contaminating local waterways and flowing miles downstream.

The government seeks to hold the company accountable for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways” and to make sure it “pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup,” according to the complaint, which also names Norfolk Southern Railway Company as a defendant.

The government also seeks civil penalties of $120,426 a day under two sections of the Clean Water Act. The head of Norfolk Southern Corp. earlier this month told lawmakers the company would fully restore environmental and economic conditions in the Ohio community.

The complaint states that compensation for the company’s executives is largely based on performance measures such as reducing expenses, and over the past four years, “annual reports show a stark contrast between the increases in operating income and the drop in railroad operating costs.”

“The drop in operating costs includes reductions in spending to repair, service, and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections, and pay engine crews and train crews,” the complaint states.

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said in a statement Friday that the crash released toxins into the environment and endangered the health of people in the community.

“With this complaint, the Justice Department and the EPA are acting to ensure that Norfolk Southern is held accountable for the harm it has caused and continues to inflict on the residents of East Palestine,” Garland said.

EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan issued a statement Friday saying “no community should have to go through what East Palestine residents have faced.

“We are once more delivering on our commitment to ensure Norfolk Southern cleans up the mess they made and pays for the damage they have inflicted as we work to ensure this community can feel safe at home again,” he said.

The crash spurred bipartisan movement in Congress toward legislation addressing rail safety, as well as oversight hearings targeting the Biden administration’s response as well as Norfolk Southern’s culpability.

A bipartisan group of House members from Ohio introduced a bill that would increase safety inspections and funding for first responders to address derailments, funded by increased fees on rail operators.

At a news conference Thursday, Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, who represents the area where the derailment occurred, said rail operators should face greater consequences when they put communities in danger.

“While trains carry many of the raw materials and goods that make modern life possible, locomotive derailments and accidents are far too common and put our communities at risk,” Johnson told reporters.

The bill would also increase the maximum fines rail operators can pay for safety violations to as much as $1.7 million or a percentage of the violator’s annual operating income.

In the Senate, Sens. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced a bill that would increase safety standards for trains transporting hazardous materials as well as inspections.

Separately, the bill would fund research into new tank cars meant to more safely store hazardous chemicals. The bill also includes almost identical provisions as the House bill for increasing the maximum fines for safety violations.

Recent Stories

Key results from Georgia runoff, Virginia and Oklahoma primaries

CBO: Deficits and inflation higher, but so is economic growth

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass ban on ‘bump stocks’

Senate report piles on new allegations of Boeing safety failures

Matt Gaetz goes on offensive as House Ethics offers update on probe

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences