Figure 1 – Norfolk Southern freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Photo credit: www.apnews.com.
On Tuesday morning, February 21, 2023, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) chief Michael Regan ordered that Norfolk Southern Railroad Company to pay for the cost of remediation for Norfolk Southern’s train derailment, in which 38 derailed. Of those 38 derailed cars, 11 of them were tank cars carrying hazardous that spewed their toxic contents into the air after the massive crash. To avoid the risk of an uncontrolled explosion, the federal government ordered that the gas be ignited to foreclose a sudden ignition. The tanks contained vinyl chloride, a chemical that is both highly toxic and flammable. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of poured into the air and community for hours after derailment.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), the initial cause of the catastrophe was an overheated wheel bearing that caused complete failure of the affected wheelset. This particular Norfolk Southern train was equipped with a “hot bearing detector system,” which is in place to detect overheated bearings. As the train passed a wayside defect detector, its operators received an alarm, alerting them to overheating components, and instructing them to stop the train to inspect the hot axle. Clearly, the crew did not stop the train—it stopped for them when the overheated parts failed, very likely causing the derailment. The NTSB investigation is still underway. In all, the derailment and toxic release required 2,000 local residents to leave their homes, and a total of 115,580 gallons of vinyl chloride to spill, which was burnt off into the air.
The EPA’s response has been harsh and scathing. Chief Regan provided in his statement that the “EPA’s order will ensure the company is held accountable for jeopardizing the health and safety of this community…Norfolk Southern will pay for cleaning up the mess they created and for the trauma they’ve inflicted on this community.”
As of now, Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay for the remediation costs. Time will tell if they will accept the same responsibility for the damage it has done to the East Palestine community that may take many years to fully heal from.
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