Off the Rails: the Norfolk Southern Train Derailment and its Aftermath

Zulay Valencia Diaz 

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024

On February 3, 2023, Ohio was suddenly and unexpectedly rocked by an accident whose long-term consequences are still unfolding. A Norfolk Southern-operated freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the village of East Palestine. This accident, which poses severe threats to the environment and safety of the local community, has raised significant concerns about the environmental implications of train accidents and the safety of transporting hazardous materials through residential areas.

The derailment

That Friday evening, 38 cars of a train headed from Illinois to Pennsylvania derailed on the track some 50 miles away from Pittsburgh. The ensuing fire damaged an additional 12 cars, bringing the total number of affected cars to 50. Highly combustible chemicals, including vinyl chloride, were being transported, which raised concerns of a potential, devastating explosion. To reduce this possibility and protect residents, Ohio’s governor ordered a residential evacuation and a controlled burning of the chemicals. 

Nevertheless, the environmental implications of this incident are vast. There are well founded fears that these chemicals were not only released into the air, but also seeped into the soil and water. As this is an area full of farms, this will likely impact the local economy as well as the environment. Furthermore, as the Ohio River flows into several states, residents in Pennsylvania and Indiana could also be negatively impacted.

Governmental response

Several regulatory laws and policies exist to prevent and mitigate the impact of hazardous environmental accidents such as this. For example, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which is otherwise known as Superfund, gives the EPA the ability to order private parties to clean the environmentally hazardous conditions they have caused. Using its authority under Superfund, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered Norfolk Southern to both conduct and pay for the clean up efforts in East Palestine. If it  fails to do so in a satisfactory manner, the company will incur significant fines and penalties.

But the EPA isn’t the only agency Norfolk Southern has to deal with. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – an independent agency within the Department of Transportation (DOT) – was charged with investigating how and why the derailment occurred. In late February, they released a preliminary report which indicates that an overheated wheel bearing is what caused the train cars to derail. The NTSB will later release appropriate safety measures that should be put in place to prevent similar accidents from occurring again. If it is found that Norfolk Southern was responsible for the derailment, either by failing to have adequate safety measures in place or by ignoring them, the DOT can levy fines.

Solutions for the future

Environmental and community safety should be a top priority for both the federal and state governments. Ensuring that such incidents don’t happen again requires strict policies and cooperation between regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, one of the challenges facing the regulatory bodies is the transportation of hazardous materials through residential areas. Through the Hazardous Materials Transportation Act the DOT regulates the transport of dangerous materials. This law gives the Secretary of Transportation the authority to identify and properly classify potentially dangerous chemicals and substances. Additionally, it requires all carriers to comply with strict safety regulations. However, accidents such as this one show that there are still gaps in the regulations that need to be addressed. For example, even though the DOT can fine companies for causing environmental disasters through carelessness, the monetary value of these fines is negligible. If these penalties are meant to be an actual deterrent to preventable accidents, they must be significantly heftier so that responsible companies can truly feel sanctioned.

Furthermore, the DOT needs to take a more proactive approach to prevent such accidents from happening in the first place. The Federal Rail Administration, which is responsible for regulating railroads, needs to enforce existing safety measures and update them periodically.

Moving forward, the DOT and EPA must work together to improve safety regulations and ensure that all carriers comply with the regulations. One of the key steps they can take is to improve the inspection and monitoring of rail tracks to prevent derailments. The DOT should also impose stricter penalties on carriers that violate safety regulations.

The Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, highlights the significant environmental implications of train accidents and the transportation of hazardous materials. Regulatory bodies such as the DOT and EPA must take immediate action to prevent such incidents from happening in the future and ensure that all carriers comply with safety regulations.