After five long years, it appears a resolution has been reached in the case revolving around a deadly chlorine gas spill in Graniteville, South Carolina (SC). A settlement between Norfolk Southern (NS) and the Justice Department was reached where NS agreed to pay a $4 million penalty for the accident. The multi-million dollar penalty includes fines for violating the Clean Water Act and Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, funds for incident command system training to environmental and transportation personnel, and re-stocking a pond with 3,000 fish that were killed by the chlorine gas, according to The Virginian-Pilot.
The original incident occurred in 2005 when a railroad switch was left in the incorrect position by a prior NS crew. Because this stretch of track was in “dark territory” (lingo meaning dispatchers and crews have no advanced electronic warning signals showing a switch position) the train crew (engineer, brakeman, and conductor) with the cargo including chlorine gas slammed through the area in the wrong way due to the switch. The train derailed and one of the tank cars was punctured releasing the chlorine gas. This gas was extremely toxic and it spewed all over the small town of Graniteville killing nine people and causing devastation. It turns out the chlorine was the same toxic gas that was used in an attack over in Iraq.
“It was the worst thing we experienced in this area and we pray we never experience anything like it again,” said Phil Napier, chief of the Graniteville Volunteer Fire Department.
No amount of money will ever be able to fully compensate for the loss of life from this terrible accident. However, these types of settlements send a signal in the railroad industry that more of an emphasis needs to be placed on safety and following proper environmental protocols. Furthermore, the accident itself led to calls for electronic switches and new train control systems, amongst other safety changes.
The NS settlement is considered “on the upper end” of penalties leveled on a rail company. “It ranks near the top 10 environmental penalties since late 2007,” said Eric Shaeffer, who works for the Environmental Integrity Project. Nevertheless, when you consider they violated two major environmental regulations and nine people were killed, it could be argued the settlement wasn’t large enough.