Ohio train derailment: East Palestine residents file wave of lawsuits against rail company

Click to play video: 'Ohio train derailment: EPA administrator promises to ‘absolutely’ hold Norfolk Southern accountable'
Ohio train derailment: EPA administrator promises to ‘absolutely’ hold Norfolk Southern accountable
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Michael S. Regan promised East Palestine, Ohio, residents on Thursday that the railway company involved in a Feb. 3 train derailment with toxic chemicals will be held 'accountable,' following a site visit of the impacted areas. – Feb 16, 2023

The residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have filed a wave of class-action lawsuits against Norfolk Southern, the rail company responsible for the Feb. 3 derailment of a train carrying hazardous chemicals.

On Wednesday, one such lawsuit was filed by the firm Morgan & Morgan on behalf of two women living near East Palestine, both of whom claim they have been exposed to “high levels of toxic chemicals.”

The under 5,000 residents of East Palestine were forced to temporarily evacuate their homes as a result of the train derailment and the subsequent burn of spilled vinyl chloride, a chemical used in plastic production.

The lawsuit alleges that Norfolk Southern, alongside local and state authorities, worsened the already alarming situation when they ignited “a 1 million pound plus chemical burn pit that burned for days” and sent massive plumes of black smoke over East Palestine and nearby counties.

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The plaintiffs are seeking punitive damages alongside medical monitoring and injunctive and declaratory relief. The class-action lawsuit also demands Norfolk Southern pay damages related to injuries, emotional distress, loss of property value and increased risks of illness in the future.

Norfolk Southern said it cannot comment publicly on the ongoing litigation.

A man takes photos as a black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern train, Feb. 6, 2023. Gene J. Puskar / The Associated Press

The lawsuit highlights the alleged severity of the rail company’s accident and attempted cleanup. They claim that “Norfolk Southern discharged more cancer-causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year.”

The legal filing alleges that the vinyl chloride was burned despite being a well-known cancer-causing gas.

“Vinyl Chloride is a DNA mutating chemical, and therefore there is no safe level of exposure,” the lawsuit continues. “Residents exposed to Vinyl Chloride may already be undergoing DNA mutations that may not manifest as a clinical cancer diagnosis for years or decades.”

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The spilled vinyl chloride was turned into highly toxic phosgene gas when it was burned. Phosgene gas was used as a chemical weapon during the First World War but was later banned under the Geneva Convention.

“Instead of properly containing and cleaning up its mess, and being responsible for a costly cleanup effort, Norfolk Southern had a different idea: ‘Set it on Fire,'” the lawsuit reads.

Residents of East Palestine and beyond have experienced irritation to their throats, eyes, lungs, mouths and lips, according to the lawsuit. They claim thousands of residents in the counties surrounding East Palestine — which is situated near the Pennsylvania border and across Lake Erie from southern Ontario — have been exposed to harmful toxins.

“This situation would never have occurred if not for failure on top of failure by Norfolk Southern,” the lawsuit reads.

Click to play video: 'Ohio train derailment: Governor DeWine demands U.S. Congress to look at rail safety'
Ohio train derailment: Governor DeWine demands U.S. Congress to look at rail safety

According to the class-action lawsuit, the train was operated in a “reckless manner,” causing the derailment. It claims an overheated wheel bearing and the faulty activation of a relief valve (which functions to vent vinyl chloride to the atmosphere to relieve pressure in emergency situations) triggered the derailment and chemical spill.

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At least six other lawsuits have been filed against Norfolk Southern in response to the train derailment, as per CBS News.

The train derailment

After the freight cars derailed on the evening of Feb. 3, residents in and around East Palestine, a town of about 5,000, were ordered to evacuate. At first, authorities were worried there could be explosions, but eventually, they were able to remove the contents of five tanker cars full of vinyl chloride.

Draining the chemicals into a trench last week, crews then ignited a controlled burn to get rid of it, creating a thick black cloud of smoke that was visible over the town.

Residents have since been told by the rail company and state officials that the air and water in East Palestine are safe (though locals have been encouraged to drink bottled water). Homeowners with private water wells have been instructed to test for contaminants, though many residents have experienced difficulties obtaining testing.

In this photo provided by Melissa Smith, a train fire is seen from her farm in East Palestine, Ohio, Friday, Feb. 3, 2023. Melissa Smith via The Associated Press

Still, some residents have complained about experiencing headaches and nausea. Others said they have noticed rashes on their children and grandchildren. Many questioned how the area can possibly be safe when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources confirmed the chemical spill is responsible for the demise of 3,500 small fish across 12 kilometres of streams. Officials have said the toxins responsible for killing fish are not present in high enough levels to harm a human.

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Norfolk Southern a no-show at town meeting

On Wednesday, Norfolk Southern declined to attend a town meeting with residents of East Palestine and local and state officials. Only hours before the meeting was scheduled to start, the rail company issued a statement citing “the growing physical threat” against employees as a reason to skip the town meeting.

Residents were vocal about their anger, over both the actual derailment and Norfolk Southern’s absence. In the packed East Palestine High School gymnasium, people shouted about their health and safety fears and their distrust of the rail company. The mayor of East Palestine, Trent Conaway, pleaded with attendees to be “civil” when asking questions.

Click to play video: 'Ohio train derailment: Furious residents demand answers on toxic spill at heated town hall meeting'
Ohio train derailment: Furious residents demand answers on toxic spill at heated town hall meeting

Norfolk Southern has claimed the company is “committed” to East Palestine and will “continue to respond to community concerns.”

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“We are not going anywhere,” they wrote in a statement.

Will the chemicals reach Canada?

Environment and Climate Change Canada told Global News that areas of Canada closest to East Palestine, which is across Lake Erie from southern Ontario, were “highly unlikely” to see any impact from the rail disaster.

“Typically, the chemical involved in the controlled release to the air, vinyl chloride, only lasts in the atmosphere for less than 24 hours. With southern Ontario being directly north and northwest of the event location, and with the prevailing winds being from the west and southwest, it would have been highly unlikely that the region would have seen any effect,” the statement read.

With files from Global News’ Michelle Butterfield 

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