Add the federal government to the list of entities suing Norfolk Southern over environmental damage caused when one of its trains derailed Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio.

The U.S. Department of Justice, acting on behalf of the EPA, sued the railroad Thursday in federal court in the Eastern District of Ohio, saying the derailment and burn-off of hazardous chemicals, as well as oil being hauled in some of the cars, contaminated the air and local creeks.

Several school districts already have sued the company in federal court, including the Blackhawk district in Beaver County. The state of Ohio also sued.

The DOJ complaint raises the stakes for Norfolk Southern even higher.

The government says it intends to hold the company accountable for “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways and to ensure it pays the full cost of environmental cleanup.”

The derailment forced the evacuation of thousands of East Palestine residents after responders burned toxic chemicals that some of the cars were carrying in order to avoid a catastrophic explosion.

Chemicals seeped into creeks near the town, and some eventually flowed into the Ohio River.

“These substances contaminated local waterways and flowed miles downstream,” the suit says. “EPA, along with other agencies, responded within hours of the incident to ensure the safety of public health and the environment.”

Testing so far has not shown elevated levels of chemicals in the air or water, but local residents and school districts are concerned about long-term health problems.

The DOJ suit says exposure to some of the chemicals at high enough levels has been associated with increased risk of cancer as well as risks to fetal development, damage to organs and skin and “other health conditions.”

The EPA has already issued an order requiring the railroad to take action, such as implementing an air, water and soil monitoring program.

The DOJ suit is asking a federal judge to impose a penalty of $64,618 a day per violation of the Clean Water Act and $55,808 day or $2,232 per barrel of oil or unit of hazardous material per violation of the Clean Water Act.

The suit also asks for an order for the railroad to take “appropriate actions to remedy, mitigate and offset harm to the public health and environment caused” by any Clean Water Act violations.

The suit is asking that Norfolk Southern bear the costs of the DOJ suit.

The railroad’s CEO, Alan Shaw, has apologized for the incident and has said the company will pay for the cleanup.

Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at

Torsten Ove

Torsten covers the courts for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Reach him at