East Palestine train derailment: Norfolk Southern agrees to $600m payout

Article by Aniqah Majid

Norfolk Southern
East Palestine residents have said the payout will not amount to much

FREIGHT train operator Norfolk Southern (NS) has agreed to pay a settlement of US$600m to residents affected by last year’s train derailment on the outskirts of East Palestine, Ohio, US.

The derailment involved 38 of the freight train’s 149 cars, with several cars containing a cocktail of hazardous chemicals catching fire. Around half of East Palestine’s near-5,000 residents were evacuated. Three days later, officials, fearing an explosion, blew open five cars filled with vinyl chloride and burned the toxic chemical, sending thick, black plumes of smoke into the air.

Subject to final court approval, the class action payout will resolve all claims within a 20-mile radius of the site and, for residents who choose to participate, personal injury claims within a ten-mile radius of the derailment.

However, residents have said the settlement will not amount to much when considering the possible future health effects caused by the chemical leak, report the Associated Press.

What happened

According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is still investigating the derailment, one of NS’ train cars was operating with an overheating wheel bearing. The overheating transmitted an alarm message, and the train crew subsequently stopped the train and called for first responders from Pennsylvania. After the train stopped, the crew observed fire and smoke and notified the Cleveland East dispatcher of a possible derailment.

Responders mitigated the fire and three days later conducted a controlled venting of five tank cars carrying around 438,000 L of vinyl chloride. This involved relieving the pressure of the cars to avoid an explosion, as the increased temperature suggested the vinyl chloride was undergoing a polymerisation reaction.

Inhaling vinyl chloride fumes can cause asphyxiation and its exposure has been linked to liver cancer and leukaemia. Residents, first responders, and researchers have reported health issues immediately after and since the derailment, listing coughing, diarrhoea, and even skin lesions as symptoms.

Ongoing clean-up and accountability

The EPA has been coordinating clean-up efforts in East Palestine since the derailment. The government body ordered NS to excavate all contaminated soil in the area, around 175,000 t, which the company completed in October.

NS was also ordered to assist with community needs in East Palestine, and a large portion of the payout has been allocated to community clean-up and infrastructure improvements.

The company’s latest financial report found that the total cost of handling the train derailment was US$1.1bn, which it expects to grow due to the ongoing remediation.

The NTSB is holding an investigative hearing in June to find out how and why the derailment happened, which will cover the operating failures of the train cars and the preparedness of first respondents.

NS said that the settlement agreement does not include or constitute any admission of liability, wrongdoing, or fault.

Article by Aniqah Majid

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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