OMAHA, Neb. — Norfolk Southern says the owner of the rail car that caused the fiery Ohio derailment in February failed to properly maintain it in the years before the crash, and the railroad wants to make sure that company and the owners of the other cars involved help pay for the costs.
The railroad filed a complaint Friday against all the car owners and shippers connected to the hazardous chemicals that spilled in the Feb. 3 derailment. As part of that, Norfolk Southern said GATX didn't follow the car manufacturer's recommendations for taking care of the plastic pellet car that has been blamed for the derailment.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in its preliminary report that the likely cause of the crash was a bearing on that car overheated. Its final report detailing everything that contributed won't be done until at least next year. The derailment forced thousands of people to evacuate their homes near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and sent a towering plume of black smoke over the town of East Palestine
The railroad said everyone involved in shipping hazardous chemicals bears some responsibility under federal regulations in making sure they get to their destination safely. Norfolk Southern, like most railroads, doesn't actually own most of the cars it hauls, and it said the car owner and shippers are responsible for maintaining them even though railroad workers inspect and repair them along the way if they find defects.
The problem Norfolk Southern identified with the plastic pellet car is that it sat idle for more than a year and a half in 2017 and 2018 and again for more than six months in 2018 and 2019. The manufacturer says railcars need to be moved at least one car length ever six months to keep the grease on the bearings from degrading, which can happen over long periods of time or during extreme weather. The railroad said the car was based on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans, which experiences hurricanes and flooding.
But GATX leases its railcars to companies that use them to ship their products, so it may not have even had control over the car at the time. The NTSB pointed out in documents released as part of its investigative hearing that the railroad doesn't track car movements within its railyards, so it also may not be clear whether this car wasn't moved when it wasn't in use.
GATX said in a statement that "throughout our 125-year history, the safety of our employees, our customers, our environment and the communities in which we operate has always been our highest priority. We will vigorously defend the company against baseless claims made by Norfolk Southern."
Norfolk Southern's move to make sure other companies pay part of the nearly $400 million estimated cost of the derailment isn't a surprise. It previously said it would likely do that as well as pursuing reimbursement from its insurers.
Railroad spokesman Thomas Crosson said this legal move doesn't signal a change in Norfolk Southern's commitment to cleaning up the mess. Rather, Crosson said this complaint "seeks to ensure that others responsible for the safe transport of freight, such as railcar owners and shippers of the material being transported, contribute resources to the effort."
The railroad also defended the decision to blow open five tank cars containing vinyl chloride and burn that chemical three days after the derailment because officials were concerned those cars might explode. Residents are concerned about the potential health implications of that move and the other chemicals that spilled.
Norfolk Southern said the railroad's hazardous materials experts who were helping firefighters deal with the derailment feared that the pressure inside the cars could be building. The fact that one car appeared to heat up on its own and another car violently vented some pressurized gas even after the fire near those cars had been extinguished troubled first responders.
The company that shipped the vinyl chloride, OxyVinyls, told the NTSB last month that its experts believed the chemical remained stable:
"Norfolk Southern's lawsuit is a meritless disinformation campaign masquerading as a legal filing," OxyVinyls spokeswoman Celina Cardenas said. "Norfolk Southern's recommendation to simultaneously detonate the railcars containing our product — contrary to the available information about the railcars' condition or the product properties — appears to have been needlessly rushed to prioritize Norfolk Southern's rail line operations."
It will be up to the courts to decide how much responsibility all of the companies involved will bear. In addition to the companies involved in the vinyl chloride and plastic pellet cars, Norfolk Southern sued the companies responsible for three other tank cars that breached.