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On February 3rd, a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, causing a fire and chemical spill that forced residents within a roughly 1-mile radius to evacuate. Several days later, the rail company released and burned vinyl chloride — a flammable gas — a move officials said would alleviate the risk of an explosion. However, the aftermath of the incident has left residents like Rick Feezle with lingering health issues.
Feezle, who has worked in the area all of his adult life and operates two businesses there, reported having a raspy voice and chest pain since returning to work after the derailment. His wife has also experienced sore throats and headaches. “Nobody can tell us what we should do other than ‘It’s safe, go head on back in there,'” Feezle said, his voice crackly. “And the fish are dying and animals are dying and I can hardly talk and my chest hurts.”
Feezle and his fellow plaintiffs are part of a group of people who live or work near the derailment site who have filed a class action suit against Norfolk Southern. For the most part, those suing the company allege that they’ve lost income due to evacuations, were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals, and no longer feel safe in their homes.
In response to the incident, Norfolk Southern has distributed more than $2 million in financial assistance to affected families and businesses to help with the costs of the evacuation, as well as creating a $1 million fund for the community. However, plaintiffs like Feezle are requesting compensation from the company for lost business revenue and expenses incurred during their evacuations, as well as punitive damages for exposure to toxic chemicals.
Vinyl chloride, the chemical that was released during the derailment, is a known carcinogen that can increase one’s risk of liver cancer or damage with routine exposure. As a result, some plaintiffs in the class action suits are seeking damages for the increased risk of future illness and costs of medical monitoring to ensure the early detection of disease.
Lisa Sodergen, a plaintiff in one of the class action suits, alleges that her house was “surrounded by toxic black smoke” that irritated her lungs, eyes, and skin. Sodergen lives in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, about 5 miles from the derailment site, which is outside the evacuation zone. “She lives with ongoing pulmonary irritation and fear for the long-term consequences to her health and water supply,” the suit alleges.
In addition to the class action suits, another recently filed lawsuit alleges that the rail company “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” in the U.S. The suit highlights the environmental impact of the incident and the long-term effects it could have on the health of residents and wildlife in the area.
The derailment and subsequent chemical spill have raised concerns about the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail. According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there were 1,960 train accidents involving hazardous materials in the U.S. between 2010 and 2020. While the majority of these incidents did not result in spills or leaks, they still pose a significant risk to public health and the environment.
In response to the incident, Norfolk Southern has emphasized its commitment to safety and its ongoing efforts to clean up the site. The company has also stated that it is “unable to comment directly on litigation.” However, the incident and the subsequent class action suits highlight the need for greater accountability and regulation in the transportation of hazardous materials by rail.