The Blackhawk School District in Beaver County has sued Norfolk Southern for negligence over the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the release of toxic chemicals into the air and water.
The district filed the complaint Wednesday in federal court in Pittsburgh on numerous counts and is asking for compensatory and statutory damages for injuries, ongoing and future health monitoring and other expenses.
The district, located in Chippewa near Beaver Falls, said the railroad’s actions “dumped a lethal cocktail” of “toxic fires and deadly plumes” on its buildings, land and water supplies.
The suit is the first filed by a school district in Pennsylvania, although several in Ohio have already sued.
Attorney Tom King, representing the district, told media outlets that the goal is to force Norfolk Southern to provide the money for the district to safeguard its students and staff and ensure that district taxpayers don’t end up footing the bill.
The complaint accuses the railroad of failing to safely operate its trains, failing to route trains carrying toxic material away from populated areas, failing to ensure that it had enough safety detectors to alert employees to malfunctions, failing to train employees in safety measures and failing to have a proper emergency response plan in place, among other claims.
The complaint says Norfolk Southern has a history of rail accidents and derailments.
As a direct result of Norfolk Southern’s actions, Blackhawk’s students and staff had to evacuate their homes and have since suffered a variety of medical problems, the suit said, including rashes, eye irritation and breathing problems.
The district will now also have to continually monitor its buildings, soil and water for contaminants.
The suit is asking a federal judge to establish a medical monitoring program managed by court-appointed trustees so that Blackhawk students will receive regular health checks by doctors. That data will be collected, with Norfolk Southern forced to pay for the program, the suit says.
Ten rail cars hauling hazardous materials derailed on Feb. 3. Five of those cars were carrying vinyl chloride. The railroad set up an evacuation zone and then conducted a controlled release of the chemical into the air to avoid a catastrophic explosion.
The lawsuit says the railroad took that action “without regard” to the school district and should be held accountable now and into the future.
The Blackhawk district covers 69 square miles, 17,000 residents and about 2,500 students.