When a Norfolk Southern train derailed on Thursday, it was the third such derailment on that railroad in the last month. Any time a rail car or locomotive leaves the track, it is classified by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) as a derailment. Derailments can be caused by a defect in the rails, or by a defect in a rail car or locomotive. They can also be caused by human error. Whatever the cause, serious consequences often result when a train leaves its tracks.
Passenger train derailments grab the spotlight because they can cause immediate traumatic injuries and loss of life. But freight train derailments too can be devastating. Trains haul all kinds of cargo, some of it very dangerous. The injuries caused by these derailments are not always so obvious. Chemical spills can cause a toxic disaster, the consequences of which may not be seen for years.
Take the recent train disaster in New Palestine, Ohio where cars carrying vinyl chloride derailed along a stretch of track just outside the city. The chemical spilled out of at least five of the cars. Norfolk executed a controlled burn of the chemicals due to the risk of explosion. Smoke and fire could be seen for miles. The chemicals not consumed by the fire leached into the ground. Toxic air pollution and contamination of the ground water are two risks inherent in this case. The results of this spill may not be known for years to come. Today we see fire, smoke, and wreckage. Unseen, is the future risk of cancer in the surrounding community. It is well known that chemicals like vinyl chloride can cause cancer, including lung cancer. The questions that remain are when might that cancer occur, what is the increased risk to exposed individuals, and what can be done about it.
The rail industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, logging record profits in recent years. Derailments like the one in New Palestine will cost the railroad and the community countless millions in the short term. The unanswerable question is what will be the public health consequences of this disaster in the long term. Investigations are ongoing by Norfolk, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the FRA and by Congress. Norfolk has promised to be there for the community in its recovery. Only time will reveal the true impact of the disaster.
If you or a railroad worker you know has been injured in a train derailment, call our office to discuss the rights you may have to compensation.