Updated May 23, 2024 - Energy & Environment

Norfolk Southern, EPA reach $310M settlement over East Palestine derailment

The site of a derailed Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2024.

The site of a derailed Norfolk Southern freight train in East Palestine, Ohio, in February 2023. Photo: NTSB/Handout via Xinhua

Norfolk Southern has agreed to pay $310 million for damages from the 2023 derailment of a freight train carrying toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday.

Why it matters: Several different toxic chemicals were released during the derailment and its aftermath, igniting concerns over potential long-term health ramifications for residents and environmental impacts.

Driving the news: Norfolk Southern's settlement with the federal government resolves a lawsuit filed against the company by the Department of Justice and the EPA for the unlawful discharge of pollutants, oil, and hazardous substances under the Clean Water Act.

  • Under the settlement, Norfolk Southern agreed to spend about $235 million to cover all past and future cleanup costs, the EPA said.
  • It said the company will pay a $15 million civil penalty, $25 million for a 20-year community health program and another $30 million for long-term monitoring of ground and surface water and private drinking water sources for 10 years.
  • It also must allocate roughly $6 million for a waterways remediation plan and pay $175,000 for natural resource damages.

Context: Part of the town had to be evacuated after the wreck so first responders could vent and burn more than 115,000 gallons of vinyl chloride — a colorless but hazardous and carcinogenic gas — to mitigate an explosion risk.

  • The burning of the vinyl chloride created a massive smoke plume over the town for several hours and generated large amounts of hydrogen chloride and phosgene, a highly poisonous gas.
  • Butyl acrylate and ethylhexyl acrylate were also released during the derailment.
  • No one was injured in the immediate crash, but residents have said they are worried about potential long-term health effects.

What they're saying: "No community should have to experience the trauma inflicted upon the residents of East Palestine," said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.

  • "Because of this settlement, residents and first responders will have greater access to health services, trains will be safer, and waterways will be cleaner," Regan said.

The other side: "We are pleased we were able to reach a timely resolution of these investigations that recognizes our comprehensive response to the community's needs and our mission to be the gold standard of safety in the rail industry," Alan Shaw, chief executive of Norfolk Southern, said in a statement.

Catch up quick: The derailment led to a massive, ongoing cleanup effort that's expected to cost Norfolk Southern over $1 billion in total.

  • The derailment was linked to an overheated wheel bearing on one of the rail cars, according to the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) ongoing investigation into the crash.
  • NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy stated in a Senate hearing earlier this year that burning the vinyl chloride was likely unnecessary.

The big picture: The crash drew attention to Norfolk Southern's safety record and highlighted a need for additional rail safety measures to prevent future derailments and other types of incidents.

  • Train accidents have become less common over the past few decades, but thousands still occur around the country each year.
  • Still, compared to other forms of transportation, rail is still considered the safest way to move large quantities of chemicals and hazardous materials over long distances.
  • Norfolk Southern has also pledged to make rail safety improvements that could cost over $200 million.

What's next: The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio must approve the settlement before it can go into effect.

Go deeper: Better trains are coming. Will America get aboard?

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a statement from Norfolk Southern.

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