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Norfolk Southern settles for $600 million in last year's Ohio train derailment

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the railroad operator Norfolk Southern agreed to pay $600 million to settle a class action lawsuit related to a major train derailment. This was the incident from just over a year ago in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. Several derailed train cars contained hazardous chemicals, and toxic smoke forced an evacuation of nearby residents. Oliver Morrison of member station WESA has been covering this story and joins us now. Welcome.

OLIVER MORRISON, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. So this is just a preliminary settlement, right? What does it cover?

MORRISON: Well, the short answer is that it covers everything. That means it's supposed to cover any health impacts people might have had experienced from the chemicals in the air or water. It covers any loss to their property values. It can even cover the inconvenience of being dislocated during the accident or their kids having to go change schools. And for business owners, it can cover the losses to income as a result of the derailment. And this applies to anyone that lived within 20 miles of the incident, although the amounts will be higher for people who live closer to the derailment and those who were impacted more.

CHANG: Seems fair. I know that you've been talking to people in East Palestine today. What have you heard in response to this settlement?

MORRISON: Well, I got a smattering of responses. Some of the people I talked to today are worried that it won't be enough. Jess Conard lives only a couple miles from the derailment site, and her family has suffered from nosebleeds and asthma. And she says the millions the company agreed to pay won't be enough to make businesses change their behavior.

JESS CONARD: If you live near a rail line, or you live near a pipeline, or you live near the river where they're transporting this on a cargo ship, this could happen in your community. What do you want to see for your community? Because $600 million for a radius of 20 miles, that's not going to cut it.

MORRISON: Conard doesn't know how much money her family would be entitled to under the settlement and says they'll decide how to respond once they know a little bit more.

CHANG: What about Norfolk Southern? Have they provided any more details?

MORRISON: Well, the company declined to answer our questions about the settlement, but in a release, the company pointed out that it had already committed more than a hundred million dollars in aid and assistance in the area. The company isn't admitting any wrongdoing, however. And the legal filing notes that Norfolk Southern is continuing its own legal action against the company that owned the railcar that malfunctioned during the derailment. The lawyers who I talked to who negotiated the settlement say that $600 million is the largest settlement for a derailment accident in the country. And they say that there are other legal cases pending with the federal and state agencies that could impose additional fines on the company.

CHANG: OK. So do we know when residents of East Palestine and the surrounding area could see a payout?

MORRISON: Well, the judge potentially could approve the settlement within 10 days. And if that happens and all the different processes play out as they expect, residents could see an initial payout by the end of the year. And those lawyers who I talked to earlier say a payout in under two years for a large environmental contamination case is unusually fast. One of the lawyers who negotiated the settlement says the Exxon Valdez spill that occurred in 1989 or the 2010 BP oil spill cases took much longer.

CHANG: That is Oliver Morrison of member station WESA. Thank you so much, Oliver.

MORRISON: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SZA SONG, "GOOD DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Oliver Morrison