‘Environmental Catastrophe’: Ohio Residents Launch Class Action Against Railroad Firm Over Derailment

‘Environmental Catastrophe’: Ohio Residents Launch Class Action Against Railroad Firm Over Derailment
Ron Fodo, Ohio EPA Emergency Response, looks for signs of fish and also agitates the water in Leslie Run creek to check for chemicals that have settled at the bottom following the train derailment prompting health concerns in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 20, 2023. (Michael Swensen/Getty Images)
Samantha Flom

Residents of East Palestine, Ohio, have filed a class action lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Corp., alleging that the railroad company’s “negligent actions” in the wake of a Feb. 3 derailment and chemical spill had created an “environmental catastrophe.”

Noting that Norfolk Southern took two hours to file a report on the crash, Youngstown, Ohio, attorney Nils Johnson Jr. of the Johnson and Johnson law firm said in a Feb. 24 statement that that delay—along with the company’s decision to burn off the hazardous chemicals the train was carrying—amounted to negligence.

“Norfolk Southern’s misguided cleanup effort unleashed a chemical warfare agent on the residents of East Palestine,” noted the attorney, who will serve as co-counsel representing the East Palestine residents.

One of the chemicals burned off in the “controlled release” was vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical that, when burned, releases other toxic chemicals, including phosgene, a gas that was used extensively as a chemical weapon during World War I.

“The company’s negligence didn’t just lead to this tragic disaster, it amplified the fallout considerably,” Johnson added, “and Norfolk Southern’s delayed response and eventual actions only added fuel to this fire.”

In filing the Feb. 23 complaint (pdf), Johnson’s firm teamed up with national class action firm Hagens Berman, which took on the tobacco industry in the 1990s and helped to secure the largest civil settlement in history.

Among their allegations against Norfolk Southern, attorneys listed the claim of “public nuisance”—a strategy Hagens Berman invoked in that landmark tobacco industry settlement—holding that the railroad company should have been aware of the dangers posed by the hazardous chemicals the train was transporting when it derailed, exposing East Palestine residents to those chemicals.

“As a direct and proximate result of defendants’ improper transportation and handling of toxic chemicals, plaintiffs’ and the general public’s common right to breathe clean air and have access to clean water without dangerous levels of toxic chemicals was diminished,” the complaint notes, adding that “massive environmental damage” had been done to the surrounding community.

Johnson, noting the “staggering” scale of the resulting destruction, said: “The true extent of the damage may not reveal itself for years to come. Norfolk Southern needs to take responsibility now and provide the people of East Palestine and Columbiana County with the resources they need for a healthy future.”

One resident represented in the class action told attorneys that, the day after the derailment, he was overcome by a “sudden and unprecedented bout of dizziness” while walking around his home. Since then, he has also reportedly experienced “intense” coughing fits, sharp head pain, and shortness of breath.

Other ailments locals have reported include rashes, vomiting, nausea, and burning sensations in their eyes and mouths. Residents have also reported pets and other animals falling ill and dying shortly after the incident.

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages for all affected businesses and residents within 30 miles of the derailment, the establishment of testing and cleaning protocols, the creation of a medical monitoring fund, and injunctive relief oversight of Norfolk Southern’s safety and compliance programs.

In a Feb. 23 press release, Norfolk Southern noted that an inspection had found that all of the wayside detectors in the area of the derailment had been working properly. Those detectors, according to a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report, were what first alerted the train’s crew that there was a problem.

The NTSB report also revealed the cause of the derailment to be an overheated wheel bearing.

Nonetheless stressing that safety was Norfolk Southern’s “highest priority,” the company pledged to develop practices and invest in technologies that could help to prevent such an event in the future.

“The speculation and misinformation about this incident have been extremely upsetting to the citizens of East Palestine,” the company said. “Norfolk Southern remains committed to the people of the community and will continue its work to help them thrive. Already, we have made significant progress in cleaning the site, engaging the community, and providing financial support for families and small businesses, all to help East Palestine.”

The Epoch Times has reached out to Norfolk Southern for further comment in response to the lawsuit.

Samantha Flom is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering U.S. politics and news. A graduate of Syracuse University, she has a background in journalism and nonprofit communications. Contact her at [email protected].
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