Pennsylvania School District Seeks Damages From Norfolk Southern for Train Derailment

By Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje
Beth Brelje is a national, investigative journalist covering politics, wrongdoing, and the stories of everyday people facing extraordinary circumstances. Send her your story ideas:
March 24, 2023Updated: March 27, 2023

Blackhawk School District in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, says its students and staff have suffered medical problems that include rashes, eye irritation, and respiratory problems since the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment and chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio.

The district, which has school properties located within 15 miles of the derailment, says the disaster also caused the loss of use of its properties, the contamination of soil and water, and the need for future monitoring of its property, soil, and water.

Blackhawk, with about 2,300 students, is concerned about an increased risk of future disease for students and staff, expects the need for future medical monitoring, and seeks damages from Norfolk Southern Corp. and Norfolk Southern Railway Co. in a lawsuit filed recently in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Toxic Train

The court filing reviews the incident, saying that before the derailment, the train crew received an alert about a mechanical issue with an axle on one of the rail cars. The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed this as the cause of the derailment of 38 cars. The train had 20 hazardous material railcars, 11 of which derailed.

The derailed cars carried harmful materials, including vinyl chloride, dipropylene glycol, diethylene glycol, ethylene glycol monobutyl ether, polyvinyl, polypropyl glycol, isobutylene, butyl acrylates, petro oil, and benzene.

The amounts released included 688,000 pounds of polyvinyl; 273,394 pounds of ethylhexyl acrylate; 273,394 pounds of ethylene glycol monobutyl ether; 206,000 pounds of butyl acrylates; and 1,109,400 pounds of vinyl chloride. All these toxic materials leaked from the railcars onto the ground, air, and water, court papers say.

Pressure in some railcars containing vinyl chloride couldn’t be released because of malfunctioning safety valves, according to court papers.

“Fearing a massive explosion, governmental authorities ordered an evacuation in a one-mile by two-mile area surrounding East Palestine, including parts of both Ohio and Pennsylvania,” court papers read. “To prevent the feared explosion, [Norfolk Southern] proposed and then conducted, by and through its agents and/or employees, a so called ‘controlled’ explosion of five tanker cars in order to breach these railcars and vent/drain the chemicals onto/into the ground, in a nearby ditch, [creating] a make-shift toxic burn pit.”

The five tanker cars contained more than 1 million pounds of vinyl chloride, according to court papers.

A toxic, manmade chemical, vinyl chloride can enter the body by breathing it in the air, drinking contaminated water, or through skin absorption from exposure to water or soil.

Lasting Effects

The court filing shows damage and accusations from various sources.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources estimated that 3,500 fish were killed in Sulphur Run, Leslie Run, Bull Creek, and a portion of the North Fork of Beaver Creek. Most of the fish appeared to be small suckers, minnows, darters, and sculpins. Most of these deaths are believed to have been caused by the release of contaminants into the water.

Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro sent a letter to Alan Shaw, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern Corp., saying the company failed to implement a unified command, creating confusion resulting in a general lack of awareness for first responders and emergency management of the tactics Norfolk Southern planned in response.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued an administrative order, defining the derailment area as a facility under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act. It stated that the site may be a threat to public, human, and animal health due to actual or potential contamination of drinking water, high levels of hazardous substances or contaminants in soils largely at or near the surface that may migrate, and weather conditions that may cause contaminants to migrate in the water.

Norfolk Southern was negligent, the school alleges, because it failed to safely route the train so that hazardous materials weren’t sent through populated areas, it failed to have a proper emergency response plan to contain the spread of hazardous materials, and it failed to accurately assess or communicate the risk of exposure to the chemicals released from the railcars.

Norfolk Southern officials didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

The school district is requesting that the court make Norfolk Southern establish a court-supervised medical monitoring program, managed by court-appointed trustees, for students to be monitored by doctors and to gather medical data for epidemiological or other scientific studies.

The district also seeks financial compensation for damage to its property as the district will monitor the effects on water and soil and may require future remediation.