Annelise Couderc, MJLST Staffer
On Friday, February 3rd a train with about 150 cars, many carting hazardous chemicals, derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. The derailment resulted in the leakage and combustion of an estimated 50 train cars containing chemicals hazardous to both humans and the environment. The mayor of East Palestine, Ohio initially evacuated the city, and neighboring towns were told to stay indoors with residents being told they could return five days following the explosion. According to a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, 14 cars containing multiple hazardous chemicals including vinyl chloride, a chemical in plastic products which is associated with increased risk of liver cancer and cancer generally, were “exposed to fire,” combusted into the air which could then be inhaled by residents or leach into the environment. There have been reports by residents of foul smells and headaches since the incident, and locals have reported seeing dead fish in waterways.
The train and railroad in question are owned and operated by Norfolk Southern, a private railway company. Norfolk Southern transports a variety of materials, but is known for its transportation of coal through the East and Midwest regions of the country. In order to prevent a large explosion with the chemicals remaining in the train cars, Norfolk Southern conducted a “controlled release” of the chemicals discharging “potentially deadly fumes into the air” on Monday, February 6th. While the controlled release was likely immediately necessary for safety purposes, exposure to vinyl chloride as a gas can be very dangerous, leading to headaches, nausea, liver cancer, and birth defects.
Government and Norfolk Southern Responds
Following the derailment and fires, a variety of governmental authorities have converged to tackle the issue, in addition to Norfolk Southern. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Norfolk Southern are monitoring air-quality, and giving guidance to determine when investigators and fire fighters may enter the scene safely. In a joint statement on February 8th, the Governors of Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as East Palestine’s Fire Chief, announced that evacuated residents could return to their homes. As an act of good faith Norfolk Southern enlisted an independent contractor to work with local and federal officials to test air and water quality, and pledged $25,000 to the American Red Cross and its shelters to help residents. The Ohio National Guard has also been brought onto the scene.
As more information is released, things are heating up in the press as reporters try to learn more about what happened. In a press conference on February 8th with Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine, the commander of the Ohio National Guard pushed a cable news reporter who refused to stop his live broadcast after asked by authorities and was subsequently arrested and held in jail for five hours. DeWine denies authorizing the arrest, and a Pentagon official has come out condemning the behavior as unacceptable. The Ohio attorney general will lead an investigation into the arrest.
Lawsuit Filed Alleges Negligence
Norfolk Southern’s history regarding brake safety as well as general operational changes in the railroad sector will perhaps play a factor in the lawsuit recently filed in response to the incident. In East Palestine, Ohio, residents and a local business owner are alleging negligence in a lawsuit against Norfolk Southern in federal court. Union organizers have expressed concerns that operating changes and cost-cutting measures like the elimination of 1/3 of workers in the last six years have resulted in less thorough inspection and less preventative maintenance. Although railroads are considered the safest form of transporting hazardous chemicals, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) data shows that hazardous chemicals were released in 11 accidents in 2022, and 20 in both 2020 and 2018. Recently, there has been an uptick in derailments, and although most occur in remote locations, train car derailments have in fact killed people in the past.
The class-action lawsuit alleges negligence against Norfolk Southern for “failing to maintain and inspect its tracks; failing to maintain and inspect its rail cars; failing to provide appropriate instruction and training to its employees; failing to provide sufficient employees to safely and reasonably operate its trains; and failing to reasonably warn the general public.” The plaintiffs allege the company should have known of the dangers posed, and therefore breached their duty to the public.
Specifically relevant to this accident may be Norfolk Southern’s lobbying efforts against the mandatory use of Electronically Controlled Pneumatic (ECP) brakes. In 2014, likely in response to increased incidents, the Obama administration “proposed improving safety regulations for trains carrying petroleum and other hazardous materials,” which included brake improvement. The 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act required the Department of Transportation (DOT) to test ECP braking, and the Government Accountability Office to calculate the costs and benefits of ECP braking. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a cost benefit test on the ECP braking, and found the costs outweighed the benefits. The FRA, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), and DOT subsequently abandoned the ECP brake provision of the regulation in 2017. The move followed a change in administration and over $6 million in lobbying money towards GOP politicians and the Trump administration by the American Association of Railroads, a lobbying group of which Norfolk Southern is a dues-paying member.
Despite bragging about their use of ECP brakes in 2007 in their quarterly report, Norfolk Southern’s lobbying group opposed mandatory ECP brakes, stating “In particular, the proposals for significantly more stringent speed limits than in place today and electronically controlled pneumatic (ECP) brakes could dramatically affect the fluidity of the railroad network and impose tremendous costs without providing offsetting safety benefits.” Although the type of brakes on the train in East Palestine is unknown as of now, a former FRA senior official told a news organization that ECP brakes would have reduced the severity of the accident. Whether or not using ECP braking while hauling hazardous materials constitutes negligence, despite the federal government finding they are not beneficial enough to make it mandatory, the fact that Norfolk Southern opposed its implementation may still influence the litigation.
Although the current lawsuit filed alleges negligence against Norfolk Southern, the private company, it is perhaps possible to approach the legal debate from an agency perspective. Did the PMHSA and FRA permissibly interpret FAST in failing to include ECP braking requirements when they were explicitly mentioned in the FAST text? Did the agencies come to an acceptable conclusion about ECP braking based on the data? If a court were to find the agencies’ decisions were outside of the scope of the authority granted to them by FAST, or that the decision was arbitrary and capricious, the agencies could be forced to reevaluate the regulation regarding ECP braking. Congress could also pass more specific legislation in response, to increase safety measures to prevent something like this from happening again.
The events are still unfolding from the train derailment in Ohio, and there are still many unknown variables. It will be interesting to see how the facts unfold, and how/if residents are about to recoup their losses and recover from the emotional distress this event undoubtedly caused.
 Regulations.gov, regulations.gov (search in search bar for “phmsa-2017-0102”; then choose “Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Braking- Updated Regulatory Impact Analysis”; then click “download.”)
 Regulations.gov, regulations.gov (search in search bar for “phmsa-2017-0102”; then choose “Technical Corrections to the Electronically Controlled Pneumatic Braking Final Updated RIA December 2017”; then click “download.”)