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Posted on Fri, Apr. 25, 2008
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Feds sue railroad in Graniteville disaster

Complaint says Norfolk Southern crash in ’05 polluted area


Federal prosecutors sued the Norfolk Southern railroad company Thursday over pollution that settled in a creek after a deadly 2005 train crash in Graniteville.

The lawsuit is relatively small when compared with the multimillion-dollar personal injury and property damage suits the company has battled since nine people died from chlorine exposure three years ago.

But the suit takes Norfolk Southern to task for a sometimes overlooked result of the train crash: damage to the environment.

At least 1,000 fish and some game died after the wreck, state reports of the accident show. State investigators also found chemically burned vegetation in the area and about 1,800 yards of contaminated creek.

Graniteville Fire Chief Phil Napier said Thursday the wreck caused enough chemical damage to trees that some have died and been cut down.

“A lot of vegetation was just killed or bleached,” he said.

Norfolk Southern issued a statement Thursday saying the government’s case won’t hold up in court.

The U.S. Department of Justice “has rejected efforts by Norfolk Southern to resolve the matter and Norfolk Southern is disappointed the government is taking this action given its response following the derailment, its full cooperation in the investigation and its payment of governmental response costs,” the company’s statement said.

Prosecutors with the Justice Department declined comment Thursday. They would not address why they filed suit or how much Norfolk Southern will have to pay if the lawsuit is successful. The complaint says the company faces fines of up to $32,500 per day for violating federal clean water and Superfund laws.

An attachment to the lawsuit said none of the other legal cases filed since the wreck apparently made damage claims that Norfolk Southern violated federal water pollution and toxic waste laws, which is the basis of this week’s federal legal action.

In the hours after the crash, diesel fuel and more than 10 pounds of chlorine ran into Horse Creek, the lawsuit says. The diesel spill caused a sheen or discoloration of the waters of Horse Creek, its tributaries and nearby shorelines, the suit says.

The lawsuit also says Norfolk Southern failed to notify the federal National Response Center quickly enough. The suit says Norfolk Southern violated both the Clean Water Act and the federal Superfund law. If a hazardous substance release or oil spill exceeds a certain level established by the federal government, the organization responsible for the release must notify the center.

The accident occurred when a Norfolk Southern freight train ran off a main line and crashed into a parked locomotive on a side track.

It was the deadliest chemical-train accident in a quarter century. Thousands of people were evacuated, with some reporting lingering health effects.

Investigators later determined a track switch was in the wrong position, which caused the train to veer off the main track and onto a rail spur.

Since then, Norfolk Southern has settled two major class action lawsuits by victims who sought millions of dollars. It also has settled a lawsuit by Avondale Mills, the textile company where the wreck occurred. The amount of the settlement has not been disclosed, but Avondale was seeking nearly a half-billion dollars.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.