One of the largest US railroad companies is facing lawsuits and mounting anger after a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in a rural community in Ohio earlier this month.
The derailment of the Norfolk Southern train forced the evacuation of up to 2,000 people, killed thousands of fish in nearby waterways and prompted fears among residents that it was not safe to return to their homes. The company is facing criticism for its handling of the event, including skipping a town-hall meeting on Wednesday. Residents have filed a class-action lawsuit against the company alleging negligence. At the same time, misinformation about the accident has spread through social media.
There are approximately 1,700 train derailments in the US each year, most unnoticed because they cause little harm, said Anthony Hatch, an independent railroad industry analyst. But Norfolk Southern’s detour from the business pages to the front page has damaged the railroad and the wider industry.
“I don’t think it’s an enormous financial hit,” Hatch said. “They are insured, they are in good financial condition, but it is a reputational hit.”
On February 3, a 150-car train travelling from Illinois to Pennsylvania left the tracks and caught fire near East Palestine, a village along Ohio’s eastern border. The US National Transportation Safety Board said the cause appeared to be an overheated wheel bearing.
Eleven of the 38 cars that derailed carried hazardous material, including vinyl chloride, a chemical used to make PVC pipes and plastic kitchenware that increases the risk of cancer. Governor Mike DeWine ordered an evacuation on February 5 because of the threat of an explosion and inhaling toxic fumes. Norfolk Southern performed a controlled release of the remaining chemicals.
The evacuation order was lifted on February 8. The US Environmental Protection Agency said on Friday it had checked the air in more than 500 homes and detected no vinyl chloride or hydrogen chloride, which can cause life-threatening respiratory problems. The Ohio EPA said the municipal water was safe to drink, but told residents with private wells to test the water.
No representatives from Norfolk Southern attended a packed meeting on Wednesday. The railroad said it was “concerned about the growing physical threat to our employees and members of the community around this event”. Chief executive Alan Shaw released a letter the next day saying the company had established a $1mn community support fund and promising, “We will not walk away, East Palestine”.
Meanwhile, false claims have proliferated online, including that dead fish and cattle have been reported hundreds of miles from the site, and that authorities have told residents not to return.
Environmentalists say it will take time before the extent of the derailment’s damage is clear. Melanie Houston, managing director for water policy at the Ohio Environmental Council, said Norfolk Southern should not only pay to clean up the accident site, but also “all human health, community and environmental costs”.
“It’s time for our state and federal leaders to rethink whether the risks associated with transporting highly toxic materials like vinyl chloride by rail are acceptable for our communities,” she said.
Railroads are obliged by law to transport all freight, including hazardous goods, and the US Department of Transportation considers rail a safer option to move chemicals than highway trucking.
The irony of Norfolk Southern’s current position, Hatch said, is that former chief executive Wick Moorman wanted to get out of the railroad’s legal obligation to carry dangerous goods. In 2005, a Norfolk Southern train crashed into a parked train in South Carolina, releasing chlorine gas that killed nine and hospitalised more than 500. Moorman testified before a Congressional subcommittee a year later asking, ultimately unsuccessfully, for an exemption.
“Norfolk Southern does not make enough money transporting these highly hazardous materials to justify the risks the federal government requires us to take,” he said.
The East Palestine derailment will invite regulatory scrutiny of railroad safety, said Todd Tranausky, a rail analyst at transportation consultancy FTR. There will be greater debate over the industry’s priorities, such as reducing the size of train crews.
The rhetoric surrounding the East Palestine derailment “feels like it got very high”, Tranausky said. “And I get it. Anytime you have hazardous materials, anytime you have a fireball — it impacts lives. But . . . some of the things getting airtime, you look at it and think: ‘I get it, we don’t trust the railroad, but that doesn’t mean the railroad’s evil’.”
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