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First class-action lawsuits filed in East Palestine toxic train derailment


This photo taken with a drone shows the continuing cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

At least four federal class action lawsuits have been filed against the rail operator whose train derailment in Ohio has resulted in a chemical spill so toxic that thousands of residents were forced to evacuate.

The massive derailment of a train operated by Norfolk Southern Railway Company happened on Feb. 3, 2023, near East Palestine, a city of around 4,700 residents located about 60 miles southeast of Akron, close to the Pennsylvania border. At least 38 cars derailed, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, and a fire engulfed a total of 50 cars.

Eleven of the train’s 20 cars carrying hazardous material were among those that derailed, the NTSB said. Among that hazardous material was vinyl chloride, which turns into a highly toxic gas when burned.

“Vinyl Chloride is a DNA mutating chemical, and therefore there is no safe level of exposure,” one class action complaint says. “Residents exposed to Vinyl Chloride may already be undergoing DNA mutations that may not manifest as a clinical cancer diagnosis for years or decades.”

That lawsuit, brought by Ohio resident Aysia Canterbury and Pennsylvania resident Lisa Sodorgen, accuses Norfolk Southern of allowing the chemical to burn instead of cleaning it up.

“Norfolk Southern ignited a 1 million pound plus chemical burn pit that burned for days and covered Plaintiffs and Class Members in a large plume of thick black smoke,” the lawsuit says. “A mushroom cloud resulted from the blaze, dispersing toxic chemicals for miles and across State lines into Pennsylvania.”

The lawsuit notes that the gas created when vinyl chloride burns has been deemed a chemical warfare agent banned under the Geneva Convention and alleges that Norfolk Southern “discharged more cancer-causing Vinyl Chloride into the environment in the course of a week than all industrial emitters combined did in the course of a year.”

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A lawsuit filed by Harold Feezle and Susan and David Scheufele accuses Norfolk Southern of negligence. They live near the derailment and were forced to evacuate their homes.

The lawsuit details the side effects of burning vinyl chloride.

“A 5-minute exposure to airborne concentrations of vinyl chloride at 8,000 ppm can cause dizziness,” the lawsuit says. “As airborne levels increase to 20,000 ppm, effects can include drowsiness, loss of coordination, visual and auditory abnormalities, disorientation, nausea, headache, and burning or tingling of the extremities. Exposure to higher concentrations of vinyl chloride can cause death due to central nervous system and respiratory depression. Vinyl chloride exposure is also associated with an increased risk of a rare form of liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), as well as primary liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.”

A lawsuit brought by Andrew Erdos and David Anderson notes that businesses in the area were forced to close and seeks damages for the loss of business. A different complaint filed by Grayce Eisley and Jeffrey Zalick details what residents have faced due to the derailment.

“Thousands of people in and near East Palestine were forced from their homes and businesses as a result of the train derailment. Shelters were opened by local governments, and hundreds of people spent the night in shelters,” the complaint says. “Others found their own accommodations outside the area. Numerous businesses were closed, and highways were blocked in the area surrounding the evacuation zone. Based upon their knowledge and belief, Plaintiffs allege that their properties may continue to be uninhabitable for an extended period of time.”

According to the NTSB, the possible cause of the derailment was “a wheel bearing in the final stage of overheat failure moments before the derailment.”

The wheelset from the suspected railcar has been collected as evidence for metallurgical examination. The suspected overheated wheel bearing has been collected and will be examined by engineers from the NTSB Materials Laboratory in Washington, D.C.

Norfolk Southern has insisted that it will not abandon the residents and businesses of East Palestine.

“We will not walk away, East Palestine,” CEO Alan H. Shaw said in a news release Thursday. “When I visited East Palestine last week, you told me how the train derailment has upended your lives and how concerned you are about the safety of your air, water, and land. Many of you have also reached out to Norfolk Southern to share your fears, your anger, and your frustration. I hear you. We hear you.”

“I know you also have questions about whether Norfolk Southern will be here to help make things right,” the letter continued. “My simple answer is that we are here and will stay here for as long as it takes to ensure your safety and to help East Palestine recover and thrive.”

As of Thursday, the railway company says that it has conducted “nearly 500 in-home air tests in conjunction with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental agencies.”

“In-home air monitoring has not detected substances related to the incident and does not indicate health risks,” the press release said.

The company also said that it has removed more than 3,100 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the area and 942,000 gallons of contaminants and contaminated liquid from the crash site.

Norfolk Railway says it has distributed more than $1.7 million in “direct financial assistance to more than 1,100 families and a number of businesses” to cover costs related to the evacuation.

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