East Palestine, Ohio, residents are seeking answers following a devastating train derailment on February 3.
The resulting toxic chemical spill and fire are being blamed for dead wildlife and illness among people miles from the disaster site. Now, some of the town’s residents have begun filing lawsuits demanding accountability and compensation from the train operator, Norfolk Southern.
Two days after the train derailment and subsequent fire, Gov. Mike DeWine ordered an evacuation of the surrounding area. The governor warned that the site had undergone a “drastic temperature change” that could result in “catastrophic tanker failure which could cause an explosion with the potential of deadly shrapnel traveling up to a mile.”
The following day, Norfolk Southern attempted to lessen the severity of a potential explosion by draining toxic chemicals from five derailed tanker cars.
Notably, one tanker car was carrying vinyl chloride. Exposure to this gas is correlated with an increased prevalence of a host of cancers.
The chemical drain prompted officials to widen the evacuation areas over concerns about the fumes released into the atmosphere. The evacuation lasted two more days before DeWine announced that air quality was clean enough for residents to return home.
The full accounting of the substances released is unknown, as the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to provide a list of the chemicals present at the site. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, it is estimated that seven-and-a-half miles of stream length have been impacted and 3,500 fish killed.
Norfolk Southern initially pledged $25,000 to support cleanup and shelter efforts but has since offered $1,000 “inconvenience checks” and expense reimbursement to eligible residents.
Sil Caggiano, a hazardous materials expert and former battalion chief with the Youngstown Fire Department, a town roughly 30 miles north of East Palestine, told local news outlet WKBN: “We basically nuked a town with chemicals so we could get a railroad open.”
Residents began levying lawsuits as early as the day after the railroad operator began releasing the toxic chemicals. The first suit seeks a minimum of $5 million in damages from Norfolk Southern for those affected by chemicals.
Another case accuses the transportation company of failing to release the list of harmful chemicals aboard the train. The suit alleges the substances were responsible for fish deaths in nearby waterways.
According to Kyle Doudrick, associate professor at the University of Notre Dame, the severity of the damage depends on how much vinyl chloride was released into the environment.
“Vinyl chloride is mobile in water, which means if it does enter the ground or surface water that it can easily move downstream,” Doudrick told Newsweek.
Emily Wright, a resident of Columbiana County, where East Palestine is located, wrote in the Columbus Dispatch that people up to 30 miles from the derailment site are experiencing nausea, headaches, shortness of breath, and other symptoms blamed on the disaster.