Eight lawsuits filed against Norfolk Southern over train derailment, ‘chemical burn’

A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a...
A black plume rises over East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled detonation of a portion of the derailed Norfolk Southern Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)(Gene J. Puskar | AP)
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 10:31 AM EST|Updated: Feb. 17, 2023 at 11:58 AM EST
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - Norfolk Southern Railway and Norfolk Southern Corp. face several lawsuits over the Feb. 3 train derailment and release of chemicals, including some that cause cancer, in East Palestine, Ohio.

Norfolk Southern is the same company working to buy Cincinnati’s municipally owned railway for $1.6 billion.

Eight suits are filed so far against the railroad, seeking class-action status with more than $5 million in damages, court records show.

The first suit was filed on Feb. 7 in federal court in the Youngstown area of northern Ohio and the seventh and eighth were filed Thursday, court records show.

In general, the suits have similar claims of negligence and carelessness that allegedly caused the train derailment and subsequent unleashing of toxic chemicals.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost also has threatened to sue the railway, according to a letter his office sent them earlier this week.

“The pollution, which continues to contaminate the area around East Palestine, created a nuisance, damage to natural resources and caused environmental harm,” Yost wrote.

One of the lawsuits, filed Wednesday by the national law firm Morgan & Morgan on behalf of plaintiffs Aysia Canterbury and Lisa Sodergen, alleges the train derailment released 1.1 million pounds of the “cancer-causing vinyl chloride” into the air, “more in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did” in 2021.

Thirty-eight rail cars on an eastbound general merchandise freight train derailed just before 9 p.m. on Feb. 3, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

As a result, a fire ensued which damaged an additional 12 cars.

There were 20 total hazardous material cars in the train consist—11 of which derailed. Here’s a list of the chemicals on board, including cancer-causing vinyl chloride and butyl acrylate, the NTSB says.

A plume of the spilled chemicals killed 3,500 fish in nearby streams, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and then went into the Ohio River.

This plume is expected to be heavily diluted when it arrives in Cincinnati late Saturday or early Sunday, according to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. No vinyl chloride has been detected in the Ohio River, the EPA says.

“Out of an abundance of caution, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission and other agencies along the river are actively sampling water at strategic locations and are closing drinking water intakes in advance of the plume to prevent any butyl acrylate from entering the drinking water. This, combined with enhanced water treatment procedures, will ensure the safety of the drinking water supply for communities along the river,” the Ohio EPA said in a news release Thursday.

The lawsuit filed by Morgan & Morgan says a mechanical defect alarm sounded on the train just before it derailed.

“An overheated wheel bearing was failing, and about to lead to catastrophe. Moments later, Train 32N derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Fifty rail cars were derailed or damaged,” the suit reads.

“Several cars containing flammable and combustible materials breached, spilling approximately 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 igniting an inferno that would burn for days.

“This situation would never have occurred if not for failure on top of failure by Norfolk Southern. Train 32N should never have been operated in such a reckless manner that its wheel bearings would fail and cause (the) derailment of a train carrying highly toxic and combustible substances,” the lawsuit states.

“Even after derailment, the integrity of cars containing highly toxic and combustible substances should not have breached, and emergency pressure relief valves should have functioned as designed. Nevertheless, Norfolk Southern layered on yet more failures once it found its derailed train at imminent risk of catastrophic detonation.

“Norfolk Southern blew holes in its vinyl chloride cars, and dumped 1,109,400 pounds of cancer causing Vinyl Chloride directly into the environment.

“For context, the highest emitter of vinyl chloride in the United States discharged 68,346 pounds of vinyl chloride in 2021. The total for all emissions of vinyl chloride in that year was 428,522 pounds. In other words, 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.

“Vinyl Chloride is persistent in the environment, and when dumped directly onto soil can leach into groundwater.

“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.’

“Norfolk Southern ignited a 1 million pound plus chemical burn pit that burned for days and covered Plaintiffs and Class Members in a large plume of thick black smoke. A mushroom cloud resulted from the blaze, dispersing toxic chemicals for miles and across State lines into Pennsylvania.

“There is a major problem with setting Vinyl Chloride on fire—it creates Phosgene Gas. Phosgene Gas is a chemical warfare agent banned under the Geneva Convention and was responsible for the deaths of about 85,000 people in World War I.

“As a result of Norfolk Southern’s decision to ignite a million-pound chemical burn pit, and subject surrounding communities to chemical warfare agents instead of cleaning up its mess, Plaintiffs and Class Members have been exposed to toxic and noxious chemicals.

“Plaintiffs and others in the community have suffered significant and sustained irritation to their throats, eyes, lungs, mouths and lips, and had their properties invaded by dangerous plumes of chemical smoke.

“Plaintiffs and Class Members have also been exposed as a result of Norfolk Southern’s decision to run Train 32N until it broke, instead of taking reasonable steps to ensure safe operations.”

FOX19 NOW reached out to the Pittsburgh law firm representing Norfolk Southern for comment. We will update this story once we hear back.

Attorneys for the railroad moved one of the lawsuits from a state court where it was filed earlier this week to the federal court, where the other litigation was filed.

So far, attorneys for the railroad have not officially filed responses to any of the lawsuits.

But they did deny the railway has liability in a federal court filing Wednesday related to moving the lawsuit from state court.

“Although Defendants deny that they are legally liable for any of the claims or theories of recovery as alleged in the Complaint and further deny that Plaintiffs, or any members of the putative class, are legally entitled to any monetary or equitable relief as alleged in the Complaint, the amount in controversy here satisfies the jurisdictional threshold,” wrote one of Norfolk Southern’s attorneys, Scott Clements.

Norfolk Southern was heavily criticized this week, including by Ohio’s attorney general, for backing out of a town hall meeting with the community.

The railway’s CEO, Alan Shaw, released a statement pledging to do what’s right by East Palestine.

It also created a $1 million charitable fund to be available immediately.

“The company will work with state and local leaders to identify where the donations can do the most good,” Norfolk Southern said in a news release.

“When I visited East Palestine last week, you told me how the train derailment has upended your lives and how concerned you are about the safety of your air, water, and land,” reads the CEO’s statement. “Our work is underway. Crews are cleaning the site thoroughly, responsibly, and safely.....I know there are still a lot of questions without answers. I know you’re tired. I know you’re worried. We will not let you down.”

Here is the railway CEO’s statement in its entirety, followed by the other lawsuits filed against Norfolk Southern this week in federal court:

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