Norfolk Southern Alone Should Pay for Cleanup, Judge Says

Train Derailment in 2023 Spilled Chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio
East Palestine cleanup
Cleanup of a creek in the aftermath of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, on March 8, 2023. (Matt Rourke/AP)

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Norfolk Southern alone will be responsible for paying for the cleanup after last year’s fiery train derailment in eastern Ohio, a federal judge ruled.

The decision issued March 6 threw out the railroad’s claim that the companies that made chemicals that spilled and owned tank cars that ruptured should share the cost of the cleanup.

An assortment of chemicals spilled and caught fire after the train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, 2023. Three days later, officials blew open five tank cars filled with vinyl chloride because they feared those cars might explode. Residents still worry about potential health consequences from those chemicals.

The Atlanta-based railroad has said the ongoing cleanup from the derailment has already cost it more than $1.1 billion. That total continues to grow, though Environmental Protection Agency officials have said they expect the cleanup to be finished at some point later this year.

Norfolk Southern train

Norfolk Southern declined to comment on the ruling. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

U.S. District Judge John Adams said that ruling that other companies should share the cost might only delay the resolution of the lawsuit that the EPA and the state of Ohio filed against Norfolk Southern. He also said the railroad didn’t show that the derailment was caused by anything the other companies could control.

“The court notes that such arguments amongst potential co-defendants does not best serve the incredibly pressing nature of this case and does not change the bottom line of this litigation; that the contamination and damage caused by the derailment must be remediated,” Adams wrote.

Norfolk Southern declined to comment on Adams’ ruling.

The railroad had argued that companies like Oxy Vinyls that made the vinyl chloride and railcar owner GATX should share the responsibility for the damage.

The National Transportation Safety Board has said the crash was likely caused by an overheating bearing on a car carrying plastic pellets that caused the train to careen off the tracks. The railroad’s sensors spotted the bearing starting to heat up in the miles before the derailment, but it didn’t reach a critical temperature and trigger an alarm until just before the derailment. That left the crew scant time to stop the train.

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GATX said the ruling confirms what it had argued in court: that the railroad is responsible.

“We have said from the start that these claims were baseless. Norfolk Southern is responsible for the safe transportation of all cars and commodities on its rail lines, and its repeated attempts to deflect liability and avoid responsibility for damages should be rejected,” GATX said in a statement.

Oxy Vinyls declined to comment on the ruling March 7.

The chemical and railcar companies remain defendants in a class-action lawsuit filed by East Palestine residents, so they still may eventually be held partly responsible for the derailment.