The Norfolk Southern derailment Feb. 3 led to one of the biggest evacuations from a U.S. rail accident in years, upending the lives of thousands of residents who fear long-term for their health and the safety of their homes and the air, soil and drinking water.
The crash and resulting environmental disaster thrust Atlanta-based Norfolk Southern under intense scrutiny by state and federal regulators, lawmakers and the media. It’s also called into question efforts by Norfolk Southern and others in the industry to weaken federal safety rules or prevent new ones from being enacted.
The Norfolk Southern crew got a safety alert about overheated bearings only moments before the crash. They stopped the train, then learned it had derailed, a federal report Thursday said.
Lawyers for East Palestine residents have filed lawsuits and the state of Ohio is threatening litigation. Neighboring Pennsylvania is even considering a criminal probe.
Officials have said the air and municipal water in East Palestine are safe, while advising residents with private wells to use bottled water until their water can be tested for contaminants. Meanwhile, residents have complained of headaches, along with skin rashes, sore throats and other symptoms.
East Palestine is at the center of the fallout, but the derailment is also a wakeup call for places like metro Atlanta, which is crisscrossed by railroad lines for freight trains that may carry toxic materials. A tangle of rail lines bisects downtown Atlanta through what’s known as the Gulch, passing close to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, State Farm Arena, the Georgia World Congress Center and high-rise offices — often occupied by thousands of people.
And every day, trains crawl through metro Atlanta suburbs from Marietta to Morrow.
People in East Palestine “fear for their future, as do thousands of American communities and neighborhoods that sit along railway lines,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg wrote in a letter to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw.
Norfolk Southern fallout
Norfolk Southern, one of Atlanta’s biggest employers, meanwhile, is under attack from all sides.
“We’re going to continue to insist that they pay for everything that they’re responsible for,” said Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
If they don’t? “We sue them,” DeWine said. “That’s the recourse.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a notice of potential liability to Norfolk Southern’s deputy general counsel after the crash, and issued an order to Norfolk Southern to clean up all of the contamination according to an EPA-approved work plan, or otherwise pay triple the cost for EPA to do it.
“In no way, shape or form will Norfolk Southern get off the hook for the mess that they created,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan.
Investor rights law firms are even investigating whether Norfolk Southern engaged in securities fraud and “issued materially misleading business information to the investing public.” Norfolk Southern lost $7 billion in market value as its stock price declined from $254.84 the day before the East Palestine derailment to close at $223.86 Thursday.
In 2022, Norfolk Southern made a nearly $3.3 billion profit on a record $12.7 billion in revenues. The company’s board last year authorized up to $10 billion in stock buybacks to reward shareholders over time.
As of early Friday, the railroad said it has committed more than $8 million in aid to the community, and has contractors working with local health officials for air and water testing in the area. But the reputational damage remains.
Buttigieg, members of Congress and others are pushing for Norfolk Southern to be held accountable, pledging to reform rail safety laws and noting that Norfolk Southern and other railroads have spent millions to sidestep tightened regulations. Buttigieg has said the rail industry should end its “vigorous resistance” to new safety measures.
Since 2011, there have been more than 200 incidents in the U.S. where trains released hazardous materials, mostly due to derailments, federal data show. That includes 34 Norfolk Southern events that released hazardous materials since 2011.
It’s still unclear how much the Ohio crash will cost Norfolk Southern, or how long the cleanup, testing and other remediation might last. Norfolk Southern said it has insurance coverage for losses from such incidents. One analyst estimates the full price tag for Norfolk Southern could be as much as $50 million, not including potential settlements, according to media reports.
“It’s pretty clear that our safety culture and our investments in safety didn’t prevent this accident,” Shaw said in an interview with CNBC. “And so we need to take a look at this and see what we can do differently and what we can do better.”
Anger and frustration
The public backlash to the East Palestine derailment has been so strong that it drove Norfolk Southern officials to fear for their safety and cancel an appearance at a Feb. 15 town hall.
A day after his company skipped the town hall, Shaw pledged to make things right. “We will not walk away,” he wrote. But distrust lingers.
“It’s like they’re hiding,” said East Palestine resident Melissa James. She owns a shop called Manetta’s Furniture and Decor along North Market Street, the main drag, where there’s also a flower shop, a diner and other small businesses occupying older, low-slung buildings.
East Palestine, a tight-knit, blue-collar town with a population of about 4,700, sits next to the Pennsylvania border about an hour northwest of Pittsburgh. Trains roll through the center of the village frequently. Near the derailment site on the edge of town, the tracks back up to businesses, with homes nearby. Beyond that, farms dot the landscape.
Some residents are financially strapped after having their lives and work disrupted by the evacuation, while struggling to navigate through the chaos left behind.
Census data from 2021 shows the village had a median household income of $44,498, compared with $62,262 in Ohio, and an employment rate of 54.3%, about five points lower than the state average. That data also showed 11.5% of the population holding a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 30.7% statewide.
“This area is low-income,” Crossmon said. “And I feel like that’s what the railroad’s kind of betting on. They have been through this before. This is just kind of what they do to people.”
Ashley McCollum lives about four blocks from the crash site. After the derailment at about 9 p.m. that Friday night, she remembers hearing one siren, then another, then looked outside and saw flames and smoke. Her 6-year-old son “was screaming and terrified.”
McCollum urges visitors to her home to wear respirators. She said Norfolk Southern’s response “was terrible from the beginning. They didn’t have a plan in order. They didn’t think this would be so bad.”
About 38 rail cars derailed, including 11 with hazardous materials. To avert an explosion, officials decided three days after the derailment to do a controlled burn of toxic vinyl chloride, creating a huge black plume of smoke in the sky.
It prompted the evacuation of a one-mile by two-mile area including parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
The evacuation order was lifted two days after the controlled burn, five days after the initial derailment.
Long-term severe exposure to vinyl chloride can cause cancer, and some are concerned that residual chemicals seeping through the ground could affect residents for years.
State and federal officials said as of Thursday that they have not found dangerous concentrations of chemicals in the air or municipal water, with readings done at hundreds of homes. On Tuesday, Regan, the EPA chief, and other officials drank municipal water to signal it’s safe, and town officials have slammed rampant misinformation on social media about safety.
Efforts continue to test well water for safety, clean up a contaminated creek called Sulphur Run that snakes through town, and remove tainted soil and water at the crash site. Norfolk Southern said it will pull up the tracks at the crash site to remove contaminated soil underneath.
Many aren’t sure if they should be showering in their well water.
Some still want to get their water tested, but aren’t sure how. Others say they don’t trust the results of air and water testing paid for by Norfolk Southern.
Those lingering fears, combined with distrust of government and skepticism of officials’ assurances, are spreading fear and doubts about everyday life.
“I’m still unsure how to clean the chemicals out of the house,” said McCollum, who fled the night of the derailment to her mother’s house in Darlington, Pa., a few miles away.
“I don’t know what’s safe,” said Zsuzsa Gyenes, Crossmon’s girlfriend. “I don’t know where to go. ... We’re running out of money.”
During the interview on CNBC, Shaw acknowledged the impact on residents. “I know they’re hurt. I know they’re scared. And I know they’re confused,” Shaw said. “They’re looking for information and who to trust.”
Signs of disruption
Weeks after the derailment in East Palestine, there are still many signs of the lasting disruption.
Near the crash site, an AJC reporter observed heavy equipment scooping contaminated soil while crews moved broken rail cars.
The state estimates chemicals in nearby creeks killed tens of thousands of fish. Workers in safety gear aerated the water to try to remediate it.
Officials turned a United Methodist church into a command center. Norfolk Southern uses the Abundant Life Fellowship church in the next town over for its family assistance center. The state converted the First Church of Christ into a health clinic.
A car dealer, thrift store and other locations have served as distribution points for bottled water donated from around the nation. A small arts center on North Market Street has transformed into a hub for meal distribution, community meetings and attorneys’ information sessions for residents.
Two weeks after the train crash, a high school girls basketball game was canceled because of the opposing team’s health concerns about playing in East Palestine.
Some East Palestine residents have returned to their homes. Others aren’t sure if they’ll ever move back.
Homeowners worry their home values have plummeted and they may never be able to sell, because people won’t want to live in a town that was the site of a chemical disaster.
On Market Street, shop owners are worried they might have to shut down if residents and customers don’t return.
“I’m concerned about the water,” said James, who owns a furniture and décor shop in the center of town. “But I’m more concerned about this business going under. ... It’s just scary.”
Foot traffic for a few days after the evacuation ended was “completely dead,” she said.
Norfolk Southern has offered reimbursements of evacuation expenses and an “inconvenience” payment of $1,000 to each resident in East Palestine.
Crossmon and Gyenes waited in line at Norfolk Southern’s family assistance center on Feb. 18 to try to get funding to pay for a hotel that night.
He stopped going to work at a nearby Circle K when they evacuated to a hotel in another town half an hour away. Hundreds of people go to the assistance center each morning, sometimes shivering outside in freezing weather, then wait hours, sometimes all day to get help.
Many are turned away and told to come back the next day.
“We are here. We’ve been here since day one,” said Will Harden, a senior director for Norfolk Southern who is running the assistance center. “We’re not going anywhere.”
Traci Mascher, who works as a server at an Applebee’s, sought assistance after the granddaughters she cares for got sunburn-like rashes and her family evacuated.
“My daughter told us, ‘Leave and don’t go back,’” she said.
Mascher has been staying with a cousin, but doesn’t have the money to relocate, and doesn’t feel comfortable putting the girls back in school in East Palestine. “I feel like we live in limbo right now,” she said.
An entrance sign to the town touts the motto of “East Palestine: The Place to be.” It’s a place where neighbors know one another and are quick to lend a hand.
Now, it’s a place some are afraid to return to. Mascher said her biggest fear is that people move away and the town never recovers.
If that happens, “I think we’ll be really sad,” Mascher said through tears as she stood in line outside the family assistance center. “I think we all will.”