Norfolk Southern Corp. has agreed to pay more than $310 million and implement safety improvements as part of a settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Dept. of Justice over the disastrous February 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, officials and the company announced May 23.

The bulk of the financial portion of the settlement is an estimated $235 million to cover the past and future costs of the ongoing cleanup effort. Thirty-eight cars derailed in the Feb. 3, 2023 incident in East Palestine, near the Ohio-Pennsylvania state line. Some of them were carrying hazardous materials including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate and isobutylene, according to EPA. Some of the cars burned, and others leaked their loads into a ditch leading into a local creek called Sulphur Run. 

EPA has collected more than 115 million air monitoring data points and 45,000 soil and water samples in the area, and crews have removed more than 177,000 tons of contaminated soil and 69 million gallons of wastewater. Recent work has focused on removing sediment from creeks so the natural flow of water can be restored. 

“This cleanup has been extensive,” said Acting Associate Attorney General Benjamin Mizer during a call with reporters. “It has focused on removal of hazardous substances like vinyl chloride that were released from damaged and burned railcars onto the ground and into nearby waterways. It has also included cleaning services for many local homes and businesses.”

The $310 million Norfolk Southern agreed to pay under the consent decree also includes $25 million for a 20-year community health program with medical monitoring and mental health services, $15 million for a 10-year groundwater and surface water monitoring program, $15 million for a separate private drinking water monitoring program and an estimated $6 million for a waterways remediation plan for projects in Leslie Run and Sulphur Run. It also includes $175,000 for natural resource damages.

The agreement includes a $15 million civil penalty to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, which EPA Administrator Michael Regan told reporters is the highest amount allowed under the law. Under the terms of the settlement, which will require approval by a judge, Norfolk Southern admits no liability. 

“We are pleased we were able to reach a timely resolution of these investigations that recognizes our comprehensive response to the community’s needs and our mission to be the gold standard of safety in the rail industry,” said Alan Shaw, CEO of Norfolk Southern, in a statement. 

As part of the settlement with EPA and Justice Dept. officials, Norfolk Southern also agreed to make a slate of safety improvements, which it expects will cost more than $200 million, though that figure was not set in the consent decree. Those improvements include placement of “hot box” sensors, which detect overheating wheel bearings, at intervals not to exceed 15.5 miles. Norfolk Southern will also increase the frequency at which the hot boxes send alarms, for every third car rather than a full train, as well as increase the sensitivity for hot boxes to trigger an alarm and expand its help desk staffing. 

Norfolk Southern also agreed to introduce a pilot program exploring the use of thermal cameras, and set new requirements for trains carrying flammable gases, such as reduced speed limits, changes in braking and added community information sharing. Additionally, the railroad will phase out the use of DOT-111 tank cars in favor of models that are more resistant to breach in the event of derailment.

Regan told reporters that the safety-focused changes were based on EPA’s technical expertise, consultation with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation and rail safety provisions that have been sought by some members of Congress. 

“Considering [Norfolk Southern’s] large market share, we expect that these required provisions will advance safer practices across the railroad industry for many years to come,” Regan said. 

For Norfolk Southern, the EPA agreement is on top of a $600-million settlement it agreed to last month with residents who lived near the derailment site. A judge signed off on that class action settlement May 21. Ohio has also brought a suit against Norfolk Southern, and in court documents both the state and the company said they had discussed a possible settlement. Norfolk Southern called the discussions “productive.” 

Many of the provisions in the agreement are similar to promises Norfolk Southern had already made following the derailment. The company estimates its costs on the response have totaled $1.7 billion through the end of March, and it said the financial impacts associated with the federal settlement had already been counted toward that cost estimate.