WASHINGTON — The Justice Department sued Norfolk Southern late Thursday, asking it to pay cleanup costs and penalties under the Clean Water Act after the catastrophic train derailment and chemical spill last month in East Palestine, Ohio.
The 28-page complaint, filed on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Northern District of Ohio, charges the railroad and its parent company with two violations of the Clean Water Act. One accused it of “unlawfully polluting the nation’s waterways” and another was related to a measure that allows the government to recover damages from companies that break environmental laws.
Norfolk Southern, a railway company based in Atlanta that operates in the eastern United States, should cover “the full cost of the environmental cleanup,” the Justice Department said.
The suit explicitly accuses the company of prioritizing profits over safety, charging senior executives with taking a series of actions aimed at bolstering their performance bonuses by cutting expenses associated with maintaining trains and equipment. Those actions, the government said, directly contributed to the accident and fire in early February that discharged toxic chemicals into the air, soil and water in East Palestine, 20 miles south of Youngstown, Ohio.
“Over the past four years, annual reports show a stark contrast between the increases in operating income and the drop in railroad operating costs,” wrote Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim, the head of the department’s environment and natural resources division, who drafted the complaint.
“The drop in operating costs includes reductions in spending to repair, service and maintain locomotives and freight cars, perform train inspections, and pay engine crews and train crews,” it added.
The department has not ruled out filing criminal charges against people involved in the derailment, according to officials familiar with the situation. State prosecutors in Pennsylvania, just across the border from East Palestine, have opened a criminal investigation of their own, Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, said last month.
A Norfolk Southern spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.
This month, the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, Alan H. Shaw, told a Senate committee he was “deeply sorry” for the effect of the derailment on East Palestine residents but insisted that “the air is safe to breathe and the water is safe to drink.”
The lawsuit on Thursday followed several actions taken by the E.P.A., including an administrative order on Feb. 21 requiring the company “to develop and implement plans” to address contamination and pay the agency’s costs associated with several chemicals associated with short- and long-term health risks, including vinyl chloride and benzene residue.
The E.P.A. administrator, Michael S. Regan, said in a statement on Friday that the actions were collectively intended to “hold Norfolk Southern fully accountable for jeopardizing the community’s health and safety.”
He added, “No community should have to go through what East Palestine residents have faced.”
The fire caused by the derailment lasted days, wafting clouds of foul smoke over the area. Several days after the crash, Norfolk Southern workers vented and burned five rail cars containing vinyl chloride — a dangerous chemical used to make plastic pipes — to prevent an explosion that could have dispersed the residue over an even greater radius.
It might take months or even years before health officials know whether the symptoms East Palestine residents suffered after the discharge — such as scratchy eyes and throats, rashes, vomiting and headaches — will cause long-term health problems directly linked to the derailment.
Medical guidance is limited at the moment, and confidence in the company and the federal government sparse. Primary care physicians in the area, booked for weeks, say that without more toxicology data, they are not equipped to diagnose chemical poisoning; they are simply treating symptoms with ibuprofen and ointment.
The Justice Department did not specify the total amount needed to reimburse government agencies for their response and cleanup efforts. The penalties requested amount to about $120,000 for each day the company is deemed to be in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The department’s complaint contains a sobering geographic overview of the far-reaching environmental damage that can be inflicted on an area’s rivers, creeks, storm water systems and irrigation ditches by the derailment of a single freight train.
The affected waterways start with a small ditch north of the railway, which is a tributary of a small creek called Sulphur Run. That is connected to Leslie Run, Bull Creek, the North Fork of Little Beaver Creek, Little Beaver Creek and, eventually, the Ohio River, the country’s third largest.
Environmental officials in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have reported deaths of thousands of aquatic animals in the five-mile span of waterway from the accident to the junction of Bull Creek and Little Beaver Creek as a result of high contamination levels.
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