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$310M East Palestine train derailment settlement reached

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Norfolk Southern agreed to pay $310 million for a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, that spewed toxic chemicals into the air and water near the Pennsylvania border.

The settlement – reached with the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency – will cover past and future cleanup costs, of which the railroad expects to spend more than $1 billion in total.

Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin Mizer said in a news release Thursday that the deal, which still requires federal court approval, “fulfills a promise” made in the Biden administration’s executive order to hold Norfolk Southern accountable.

“Importantly, those who will most directly benefit from this settlement are those who were most directly affected by the disaster,” he said. “And the rail safety commitments will help prevent future catastrophic railway events.”

The settlement comes after the Norfolk Southern train jumped the tracks on Feb. 3, 2023, just outside the small rural town in eastern Ohio. In the following days, railroad officials made what critics – including Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro and the president – considered a rash decision to burn five derailed cars carrying vinyl chloride to prevent a possible explosion.

“While there are acts of God, this was an act of greed that was 100% preventable,” President Joe Biden said during a Feb. 16 visit to the site. “Let me say it again – an act of greed that was 100% preventable.”

Shapiro negotiated a $7.4 million aid package with the company in the weeks after the crash. There were no injuries in the crash, though the lasting impacts to the region have drawn sharp criticism from area residets.

In April, Norfolk Southern agreed to settle a $600 million class action suit to resolve claims within a 20-mile radius of the accident site.

Still, people living in the region say it’s not enough.

During a committee hearing in March, residents in Pennsylvania said the legislative response to “Ohio’s Chernobyl” over the last 16 months has been underwhelming, at best.

Lori O’Connell – who lives in nearby Darlington, Pa. – said she’s spoken to Norfolk Southern CEO Alan Shaw, though “it yields nothing.”

“He’s a puppet, he’s controlled by his Board of Directors,” she said. “Nobody believes in the alphabet soup people because they don’t follow through with what they say they’re going to do anyhow – or you get the runaround.”

O’Connell, who lives 3 miles from the derailment site, couldn’t get any agency to test her soil. That is, until she forced her way into a meeting with Shapiro, whose office called the EPA to order a test on her property.

The results showed elevated levels of benzene, vinyl chloride and other chemicals. Since the derailment, her husband has also developed a rare form of breast cancer – though it’s not been proven to be a direct result of the crash.

“I’m angry at my local government, my county government, my state and my federal because the help that we have received in this township is short of nothing – nothing,” O’Connell said. “It’s inexcusable that, as taxpaying citizens in the state of Pennsylvania, that we should have to go through this.”

Federal investigators have since said Norfolk Southern’s decision to burn off toxic chemicals contained within the five derailed train cars was unnecessary.

Norfolk Southern has maintained that it was the safest option, though it’s been cagey about the details.

Federal officials said Thursday the newest settlement requires spending on a 20-year community health program, including medical monitoring, for residents and first responders. It will also spend $30 million testing ground, surface and drinking water over the coming decade.

“No community should have to experience the trauma inflicted upon the residents of East Palestine,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan.

He added that the enforcement action guarantees that Norfolk Southern pays for the cleanup and rail safety improvements to prevent future tragedies.

“Because of this settlement, residents and first responders will have greater access to health services, trains will be safer, and waterways will be cleaner,” he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board plans to release its final report of its investigation in June.

Anthony Hennen contributed to this report.

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