Prove your humanity

The EPA announced it had reached a settlement with Norfolk Southern for its toxic derailment last year in East Palestine, Ohio, near the border with Pennsylvania. 

The $310 million agreement includes money for cleanup, water testing and health monitoring.

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EPA administrator Michael Regan said Thursday he hopes the settlement will help the people of East Palestine recover from the now 15-month cleanup effort caused by the derailment.

“Norfolk Southern is being held accountable and will address and pay for the damage caused by the 2023 derailment,” Regan said. 

East Palestine: One Year Later

Most of the penalty, $235 million, will pay for EPA’s past and future expenses for the cleanup of the derailment site, where more than 11 cars containing vinyl chloride and other hazardous chemicals spilled and caught fire. Three days after the derailment, local officials and Norfolk Southern made the decision — since criticized by safety officials — to intentionally burn five cars of vinyl chloride. The blaze sent a plume of black smoke that covered the region. 

In addition, Norfolk Southern agreed to invest $200 million in rail safety enhancements.

Regan says the agreement includes safety measures some in Congress have been asking for since the derailment, like more technology to detect overheated wheel bearings. Safety officials say the derailment happened after a wheel bearing overheated, causing 38 cars to derail in total.

“Had these provisions been in place on February 3rd, 2023, This disaster may never have happened in the first place,” Regan said. 

In addition to more detectors, the settlement will mandate Norfolk Southern use better railcars to carry hazardous materials, and increase staffing at the company’s Atlanta-based safety center.

“Considering its large market share, we expect that these required provisions will advance safer practices across the railroad and railroad industry for many years to come.” 

Many have experienced health problems like headaches and rashes since the derailment. 

The settlement addresses these issues. It includes $25 million for community health benefits, such as screenings and tests for those living within two miles of the derailment site. It also includes $30 million for surface and underground water testing for 10 years. 

The agreement includes only a $15 million civil penalty, which Regan said was the maximum allowed by law. 

“We have secured the highest penalty allowed by law under the Clean Water Act, given the facts of the case and the violations that have been alleged,” Regan said. 

Other provisions include a $6 million plan to restore Leslie Run and Sulphur Run, local streams that were polluted by the spilled chemicals; and $175,000 for “natural resource damages” caused by the derailment. Norfolk Southern will have to create a procedure for notifying local governments of track restoration after hazardous train spills, and also for coordinating with local officials in advance of intentional burning of chemicals during a derailment. 

Norfolk Southern has already spent $780 million in cleanup and reached a $600 million settlement in a class action lawsuit filed by residents. 

In a statement, CEO Alan Shaw said he was “pleased we were able to reach a timely resolution of these investigations” into the derailment. “We will continue keeping our promises and are invested in the community’s future for the long haul.”

However, not everyone affected by the derailment thinks the EPA’s multimillion-dollar settlement is a great deal for the East Palestine community.

“It just seems like pennies. They’re a multi-billion dollar company,” Hillary Flint said of Norfolk Southern, which is worth $51 billion.

Flint has had health problems, including bronchitis, since the train derailed four miles from her home in Beaver County, Pennsylvania. Flint is an organizer with Clean Air Action Fund and is director of communications with the Beaver County Marcellus Awareness Community, a local environmental group. 

Flint wants free healthcare for life for anyone in the community. 

“We deserve Medicare for life after all of this,” she said. “There’s just not enough information out there on combined toxic exposure. And when you look at each of these chemicals individually, they all have pretty scary health effects.” 

The community health benefits include a 20-year program to provide medical monitoring and mental health care to residents and first responders affected by the derailment. But Flint says that might not be enough for anyone suffering serious health effects in the future. 

“I think if we look back at this in five to 10 years, we’re going to look at this agreement and be even more angry than I am today because this is going to continue to be a problem,” Flint said. “Because both the EPA and Norfolk Southern didn’t handle things correctly in the beginning.” 

The agreement is subject to a public comment period and will need to be approved by a federal judge.