The Biden administration on Friday took its latest step to hold Norfolk Southern accountable for the disaster continuing to unfold in East Palestine, Ohio and the surrounding area, filing a lawsuit against the rail company for sending toxic chemicals into the environment.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the company under the Clean Air Act, accusing it of "unlawfully polluting the nation's waterways" and calling on Norfolk Southern "to ensure it pays the full cost of the environmental cleanup."
"When a Norfolk Southern train derailed last month in East Palestine, Ohio, it released toxins into the air, soil, and water, endangering the health and safety of people in surrounding communities," said Attorney General Merrick Garland. "With this complaint, the Justice Department and the [Environmental Protection Agency] are acting to pursue justice for the residents of East Palestine and ensure that Norfolk Southern carries the financial burden for the harm it has caused and continues to inflict on the community."
The lawsuit comes almost two months after a train carrying chemicals including vinyl chloride derailed in East Palestine, spilling chemicals into local waterways and ultimately the Ohio River, which provides drinking water for more than five million people.
"Whatever it takes to make East Palestine whole, Norfolk Southern needs to pay—and it's not enough to take their word for it."
Officials began a controlled release of vinyl chloride to prevent an explosion, a process that sent chemicals including hydrogen chloride and phosgene into the environment. Those chemicals have been known to cause symptoms including headaches, vomiting, and rashes. Earlier this month, data showed that local levels of dioxin, a carcinogen, were hundreds of times higher than the threshold for cancer risk, according to federal scientists.
Norfolk Southern has removed nine million gallons of contaminated wastewater from the site and hauled it to storage sites in states including Texas and Michigan. Earlier this week, officials in Baltimore blocked a shipment of wastewater to a treatment plant there, with one city council member noting that "too often cities with high rates of concentrated poverty and environmental degradation are asked to shoulder the burden for corporate malfeasance."
Government officials say toxic levels of contamination have not been detected in the air or water in East Palestine, but a poll by federal, state, and local authorities earlier this month found that 74% of town residents had experienced headaches following the derailment and controlled release, and 52% had experienced rashes or other skin issues.
On Friday, CNNreported that investigators with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) experienced symptoms including sore throat, headache, coughing, and nausea while they were in East Palestine assessing public health risks.
By filing its lawsuit, said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division, the Biden administration is "demanding accountability from Norfolk Southern for the harm this event has caused."
"We will tirelessly pursue justice for the people living in and near East Palestine, who like all Americans deserve clean air, clean water, and a safe community for their children," said Kim.
In February, the EPA ordered Norfolk Southern to take full responsibility for the cleanup work, issuing a legally binding directive. It also demanded that the company attend all public meetings regarding the disaster, after officials refused to meet with residents following the crash.
Ohio filed a lawsuit against the company earlier this month, demanding that it pay for soil and water monitoring in the coming years as well as paying environmental damage and cleanup costs.
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio)—a key sponsor of multiple recent railway safety bills—applauded the Biden administration for "following Ohio's lead and holding Norfolk Southern accountable to the full extent of the law."
The latest lawsuit against Norfolk Southern "should further serve as a wake-up call" to the rail industry, said Robert Guy, Illinois state director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers-Transportation Division.
Norfolk Southern and other rail companies have long lobbied for lax regulations and pushed workers to abide by a strict scheduling system that rail unions say places profits over safety.