The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Corporation on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on March 31, almost two months after the Atlanta-based company’s train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The lawsuit, which alleges that Norfolk Southern violated the Clean Water Act because the chemicals released in the derailment contaminated waterways, seeks injunctive relief as well as civil and financial penalties.
“With this complaint, the Justice Department and the EPA are acting to pursue justice for the residents of East Palestine and ensure that Norfolk Southern carries the financial burden for the harm it has caused and continues to inflict on the community,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote in a March 31 press release.
A Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials derailed on Feb. 3, burning and releasing toxic chemicals into the air in East Palestine, over 700 miles away from Norfolk Southern’s headquarters in Midtown Atlanta.
Norfolk Southern President and CEO Alan Shaw returned to the U.S. Senate on March 22 to testify before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Two more Norfolk Southern trains have derailed since the Feb. 3 incident — one in Springfield, Ohio on March 4 and another in Calhoun County, Alabama on March 9.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) advocated for the Railway Safety Act, which would include bolstering safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, increasing the maximum fine for rail safety violations and supporting communities impacted by railway accidents. National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy proposed to expand the definition of hazardous trains and stop using hazmat services in certain tank cars to ensure further rail safety.
Shaw testified that Norfolk Southern supports using science and data to enhance rail safety. However, did not state whether he supports the Railway Safety Act’s requirement for two-person crews, claiming he has a lack of data linking crew size to safety.
“We will continue to invest in the affected communities for as long as it takes to help people in the area to recover and thrive,” Shaw said on March 22. “We are also committed to learning from this accident and to working with public officials and industry to make railroads even safer.”
East Palestine resident Misti Allison also testified before the committee, saying that the East Palestine community has been living in fear of the negative health effects from the train derailment.
“The anxiety is real,” Allison said on March 22. “My 7-year-old son has asked me if he is going to die from being in his own home.”
The train had a three-person crew, making it possible to move the locomotives — the engine of the train — to safer places after the derailment and prevent larger tragedies. If the train had been operated with a single engineer crew, they would not have been able to take more emergency measures to ensure a safe response, according to Railroad Workers United.
On March 9, the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works questioned Shaw on the company’s commitments to ensure East Palestine recovers from the train derailment. Shaw apologized for the derailment, saying that Norfolk Southern is committed to helping East Palestine.
In response to the incident, Norfolk Southern assigned a community liaison in East Palestine to convey community concerns to Shaw and launched a new website with updates on the company’s clean-up progress and family assistance services.
In an email statement to the Wheel, the Norfolk Southern media team wrote that Norfolk Southern has offered financial assistance to families, the community, the community liaison and the fire department, as well as to local fire departments and businesses in western Pennsylvania that were affected by the derailment. The company has given about $28.5 million in community support since the derailment.
Emory, Atlanta response
While Emory is over 700 miles away from East Palestine, Meera Sethi’s (23Ox) family lives a 15-minute drive away from East Palestine. She was FaceTiming her friend in East Palestine when the incident happened.
“She showed me out the window and it looked like storm clouds, but it was not storm clouds,” Sethi said.
Sethi added that people who lived within one mile of the accident site evacuated to the Hampton Inn in her town. She went back home for spring break and said both she and her brother got sick, potentially from the chemicals in the air.
“It wasn’t allergies or anything,” Sethi said. “We had rashes and were really itchy.”
Thousands of animals such as minnows, crayfish and amphibians have died as a result of the train crash, leaving dead fish on the surface of the water. Sethi said she is concerned about the derailment’s long-term health impacts, claiming that there has been a lack of transparency on the matter.
Associate Teaching Professor Shaunna Donaher said how chemicals that were released into the air impact humans depends on the chemical molecules, the wind pattern and the geography.
Larger molecules particles would settle down to the ground while smaller molecules potentially remain in the air and motions in the atmosphere, like winds, could carry it around. If the winds carry the chemicals into a valley, they would be more concentrated compared to carrying them into flat areas.
“If you’re talking about maybe a flat area over a wide location, then it would probably get diluted,” Donaher said. “Because it’d be able to spread out a lot more, which would potentially mean less of an impact for individuals.”
Donaher said the concentration of chemicals in the affected areas is below EPA’s threshold to consider it harmful to people, but it never hurts to be cautious.
Manju Karthikeyan (23Ox), who is from Cincinnati, believes all Americans need to be concerned about the derailment’s effects as the toxic chemicals being released into the air move across state borders.
“Advocating for more research and medical treatment in East Palestine, in that region of Ohio in general, and just talking with government officials more through advocacy will be really helpful,” Karthikeyan said.
A local nonprofit in East Palestine, The Way Station, is providing necessities to East Palestine residents, including over 3,000 items of clothing, two semi-trucks with food and more than 650 water and air purification systems. Norfolk Southern recently donated $250,000 to support The Way Station’s effort in helping East Palestine. The Way Station Executive Director Chaney Nezbeth said that most East Palestine residents have been able to get back to everyday life.
“There are individuals that are definitely more susceptible to toxins than others and I am sure that a lot of the symptoms that are manifesting right now could also be attributed to the stress, the anxiety and the trauma of the situation,” Nezbeth said. “But I can say that based on my personal experience in the community, that is a very small percentage of individuals that are experiencing symptoms.”
Eric Wirks, who owns a moving company in Atlanta, was born in East Palestine and said he is still involved in his hometown. He donates scholarships to East Palestine High School yearly, and after growing concerned about the derailment, Wirks donated $10,000 to The Way Station, saying that he wanted to put his money where his mouth is and motivate others to donate as well.
“We absolutely were able to step up and help the need because we have been inundated with support from all over the country,” Nezbeth said. “If it weren’t for our neighbors near and far, we would have never been able to help with the need.”
The Way Station will continue to help the East Palestine community with long-term needs, including assisting those who were impacted financially to build resources and be more self-sufficient, according to Nezbeth.
However, Wirks found it “painstaking” to search for well-organized information online regarding the incidents and ways people could help, so he worked with his team to create a single-source website with condensed information explaining the situation and different ways people can donate and help.
Wirks noted that it is helpful to donate even $1, learn about the situation and spread the word.
Activists in Atlanta have also been making an effort to protest Norfolk Southern. The Atlanta Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) organized a student-led peaceful protest on March 11 outside the Norfolk Southern headquarters in Midtown. Around 40 people attended — many of whom are Georgia Institute of Technology students — and held signs with slogans such as “honk for rail workers” and “corporate greed makes us bleed,” according to Atlanta DSA co-Chair Kelsea Bond.
Alex Cliver, a Georgia Tech student, spoke at the rally. After the incident, Alex researched Norfolk Southern and was surprised by the company’s close connection to Georgia Tech, which partners with Norfolk Southern for its six-point plan to improve railroad safety. Additionally, Norfolk Southern committed $75,000 to Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center last year to launch a sustainability-focused technology initiative.
“We were blown away by how connected it was to Georgia Tech without us even knowing,” Cliver said. “We thought it was very important for us to bring up the issue and let other Tech students and other people know how connected they are.”
Young DSA Georgia Tech members are currently working on a petition to demand Georgia Tech cut all ties with Norfolk Southern, according to Cliver.
The Atlanta DSA is also demanding accountability for Norfolk Southern’s role in the derailment, Bond wrote in an email to the Wheel.
“We are demanding that Norfolk Southern fully compensate all residents impacted by the derailment,” Bond wrote. “We are also demanding that Norfolk Southern concedes to the demands of railroad workers who are fighting for paid sick leave and increased safety regulations and to end their lobbying to deregulate the railroad industry.”
Bond noted that Norfolk Southern made nearly $5 billion in profit in 2022, adding that the company has the financial ability to improve worker conditions and railroad safety and pay other damage costs.
Additionally, Nezbeth said The Way Station will be flexible in meeting the needs of East Palestine and continue to support the community.
“We are doing the best we can,” Nezbeth said. “We are gonna keep going. We are here for the long term. We are expanding our East Palestine location so that we can provide the support for the long term, whatever that may be.”