East Palestine Derailment ‘Foreseeable and Preventable,’ Ohio Attorney General Lawsuit Alleges

Two derailments in 2022 ought to have sounded the alarm, the complaint says, but didn’t.
East palestine derailment
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The Ohio attorney general sued Norfolk Southern for civil penalties and damages relating to the East Palestine derailment on Tuesday, calling the crash “both foreseeable and preventable.” The suit is the latest in a litany of filings relating to the derailment after affected residents lawyered up amidst a rush of litigators flooding the zone, and is arguably the most significant suit filed so far.


The 58-count complaint filed by Attorney General David Yost alleges that “Norfolk Southern’s own record demonstrates that it knew—and should have taken appropriate steps to prevent—the significant harm that the Derailment would cause the State.” Politico reported that Norfolk Southern’s accident rate has increased 80 percent over the last decade. 

The complaint also alleges that Norfolk Southern has “recently had numerous derailments involving faulty wheel bearings,” referencing information from a Federal Railroad Administration safety advisory issued February 28. That safety advisory referred to two Norfolk Southern derailments within the last year that resulted in hazardous material spills. The first was on July 12, 2022 in Warner Robbins, Georgia in which crews were provided conflicting messages about whether a damaged bearing was significant enough to stop the train for repairs. It derailed shortly afterwards, spilling sulfur. Three months later, on October 8, a train derailed in Sandusky, Ohio due to an overheated bearing. The crew had requested permission to take the damaged car out of the train multiple times, but were directed to move the train instead. Seven miles later, it derailed.

“Given this history,” the complaint said, “Norfolk Southern should have taken, but did not, appropriate steps to prevent the Derailment and resulting harm in the State, and at a minimum Norfolk Southern should have been prepared to adequately respond to the Derailment and mitigate damage immediately after the Derailment.”

The East Palestine derailment has become one of the most important transportation events in decades. On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train derailed just outside the town and burst into flames. Two days later, the company decided to do a controlled burn of vinyl chloride which was becoming dangerously overheated inside the tank cars. This created a giant cloud of smoke that lingered over the area. Workers familiar with the train that derailed have told Motherboard that they knew the train was dangerous.

Residents have since reported various health effects they link to the derailment and its aftermath. Government officials have insisted since the derailment occurred that they haven’t detected any harmful levels of toxins, a mismatch that has further stoked fear and distrust among residents. Residents who own their homes also worry their most important financial asset has cratered in value as a result of the derailment.

In a statement, Norfolk Southern said it is continuing to work with the East Palestine community and “listening closely to concerns from the community about whether there could be long-term impacts from the derailment.” The company said, “We look forward to working toward a final resolution with Attorney General Yost and others as we coordinate with his office, community leaders, and other stakeholders to finalize the details of these programs.”

Freight rail workers across the industry have been sounding the alarm for years that safety practices have become secondary to profits, as Motherboard has previously reported. Car inspections which could detect mechanical malfunctions that cause derailments have been reduced to save time and money. After company notices started prioritizing efficiency, speed, and reduced dwell time ahead of safety, some Norfolk Southern workers adopted a new mock slogan for the company: “Safety Fourth.”