Ohio Sues Norfolk Southern for Train Derailment as Republicans Flex Populist Muscles

‘Do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government, or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us?’

AP/Gene J. Puskar
A Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed at East Palestine, Ohio, on February 4, 2023. AP/Gene J. Puskar

As the state of Ohio seeks damages for the Norfolk Southern train derailment at East Palestine, a new crop of Republicans is embracing some aspects of anti-corporate populism, decrying “crony capitalism” and what they see as a lack of commitment to struggling people in the hinterland. 

The state’s Republican attorney general, Dave Yost, announced he had filed the lawsuit in federal court on Monday. “Ohio shouldn’t have to bear the tremendous financial burden of Norfolk Southern’s glaring negligence,” Mr. Yost said. 

“The fallout from this highly preventable incident may continue for years to come,” he added, “and there’s still so much we don’t know about the long-term effects on our air, water, and soil.”

He is suing the rail giant for civil damages, citing not only the East Palestine accident but a raft of train derailments in recent years. “The derailment was entirely avoidable and the direct result of Norfolk Southern’s practice of putting its own profits above the health, safety and welfare of the communities in which Norfolk Southern operates,” Mr. Yost wrote.

The attorney general’s lawsuit comes at a time when some Republicans are trying to mandate more safety requirements on the rail industry in order to protect communities like East Palestine, hoping to avoid the air and water contamination the community is now seeing. 

Senator Vance has partnered with three Democrats — his colleague from Ohio and both of Pennsylvania’s senators — to pass more stringent safety measures for the rail industry. 

Mr. Vance hopes to assure people like East Palestine resident Chris McManus, who told columnist Salena Zito that despite assurances from state and federal officials, community members don’t feel safe. “Authorities also told the residents of Flint their drinking water was safe, too, turns out it wasn’t,” Ms. McManus said. “The government has given us plenty of reasons not to trust them.”

Mr. Vance testified in support of his bill at a committee hearing earlier this month. “If you look at this industry and what’s happened in the last 30 years,” he observed while sitting next to the chief executive of Norfolk Southern, “this is an industry that enjoys special subsidies that almost no industry enjoys, this is an industry that enjoys special legal carve outs that almost no industry enjoys.” 

The crash was caused by an overheated bearing. Mr. Vance’s legislation would require all trains to check for bearing defects every 10 miles.  It would also require companies to notify localities if they are carrying hazardous materials through their areas — something the East Palestine fire department was not aware of when they arrived on the scene of the derailment. 

The president and CEO of Norfolk Southern, Alan Shaw, told senators he could not support the rail bill in its current form, but said that he is open to some new rules around how many detectors the rail companies must use.

In response to the lawsuit, a Northfolk Southern spokesman told CNN that the company is going to “make it right” by the people of East Palestine by providing a medical fund and potentially paying the difference in home depreciations. 

“We look forward to working toward a final resolution with Attorney General Yost and others as we coordinate with his office, community leaders, and other stakeholders to finalize the details of these programs,” the statement said. So far, the company has committed $24 million to aid residents and is conducting on-the-ground air- and water-quality monitoring. 

President Trump’s administration has faced criticism for removing an Obama-era railway safety rule that mandated electronic rather than air brakes on freight trains. However, that transportation rule was only instituted for trains carrying oil, not hazardous chemicals, so it would not have covered the train that crashed in East Palestine. Mr. Shaw did say that an electronic brake system would have made the crash somewhat less likely. The railway safety legislation does not address the braking issue. 

Despite the rhetoric, the American rail industry has actually become safer and less accident-prone in the last 25 years. According to the American Association of Railroads, railroad accidents have decreased by 44 percent since the year 2000 and track-caused accidents are at an all-time low. The organization is also recommending the use of bearing heat detectors every 15 miles, down from their current recommendation of 40. 

Mr. Vance has criticized not only Norfolk Southern, but some of his fellow Republicans. “You’ve heard a lot of talk from my Republican colleagues,” he said, detailing a years-long political realignment.  “We are the party of firefighters, of police officers, of the people who go to work, pay their taxes, fight our country’s wars, and keep our communities safe.” 

He added: “Now we are faced with a choice. With this legislation and how we respond to this crisis, do we do the bidding of a massive industry that is in bed with big government, or do we do the bidding of the people who elected us to the Senate and to the Congress in the first place?” 

“I believe that we are the party of working people, but it is time to be the party of working people. We have a choice: are we for big business and big government, or are we for the people of East Palestine? It’s a time for choosing. Let’s make the right one.” 

Mr. Vance is joined in his defense of these safety guidelines by some younger conservatives who have rejected portions of past free-market principles and embraced the necessity of the state in protecting the common good.

A new conservative policy organization called American Moment does just that. Its mission statement calls for developing policy that “supports strong families, a sovereign nation, and prosperity for all.”

The group’s president, Saurabh Sharma, supports Mr. Vance’s legislation. In response to the libertarian group FreedomWorks, Mr. Sharma said on Twitter that his party must place pro-family and pro-safety policy ahead of ideology. 

“We cannot allow silly libertarian platitudes to decide that giant rail companies can nuke small middle-American towns willy nilly,” he wrote.

“Norfolk Southern has had increased train accidents every year for the last 4 years. Enough. It’s time for common-sense, not warmed-over ideology,” he added.

MATTHEW RICE
MATTHEW RICE

Mr. Rice is a Staff Reporter based at Boston. He covers current events in politics.

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