FILE - In this March 3, 2019, file photo a Norfolk Southern Railway Company freight train passes through Pittsburgh. More than two dozen major companies ranging from Campbell Soup to Kia filed anti-trust lawsuits on Sept. 30, 2019 against the nation's four largest railway companies, contending the railroads had a price-fixing scheme to illegally boost profits.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

By Helen Bezuneh
Special to the AFRO

When Ohio businessman Edwin Wang got word about a train derailing directly behind one of his business properties in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3, he couldn’t have imagined that the end result would be so tragic.

“I got a phone call from the alarm company and they said, ‘There is a fire right behind your building. The firefighters need to access your building to set up extinguishers,’” he told the AFRO. “Then I turned on the TV and I saw my building with a huge fire behind it. That night, I did not go to sleep. I was shocked.”

Wang said he thought the firefighters did a good job in trying to stop the fire from reaching the building. 

“So my initial reaction, I thought maybe as long as they can put the fire under control, it may take a few weeks then our business can return to normal,” he said.

Wang’s businesses, however, never returned to normal. The derailed Norfolk Southern Railway Co.’s train carried hazardous waste that spread directly onto Wang’s primary business, CeramFab, which made protective parts for steel mills. The spill also affected his other nearby businesses, CeramSource and WYG Refractories. With the derailment leading to a drastic decline in customer orders and a reluctance among workers to continue laboring within the contaminated facilities, Wang filed a $500 million, seven-count lawsuit against Norfolk Southern on Nov. 14, seeking compensation for damages that his businesses incurred as a result of the derailed train. 

 “A lawsuit is the only option right now. I feel like our future with this industry is canceled, we have no future. The government never gave me any assistance, so what can I do?”

“It’s fatal for us. We had four businesses in the town,” said Wang, a naturalized U.S. citizen. “Because of the derailment, all the businesses stopped. The customers do not want us to ship all of our materials are made at this location and contaminated also. Quite a few customers canceled orders for that reason. Although we try very hard to tell them: ‘OK, the environment is contaminated, but our products still can be used,” it’s really hard to convince people. People are very worried. We cannot force our customers to continue doing business with us.”

Jon Conlin, an attorney at Cory Watson Attorneys in Birmingham, Ala., is on Wang’s legal team. In the lawsuit, they make the request for compensation on the basis of interruptions to Wang’s businesses, cost of litigation for the properties, cost of lost inventory and other business damages.  

“We’ve been trying for the last six months to reach a resolution with Norfolk Southern because we were hoping not to have to file this lawsuit,” said Conlin. “We provided them with all the same financial information we put in this lawsuit, we gave them our performance, we gave them the sales receipts, the proof of the expenses, everything they would need to properly evaluate this. And they just strung us along.”

Wang started his businesses 24 years ago with a company called CeramSource, importing ceramic fiber insulation materials from China for higher temperature industries. Following an escalation in import duty due to the trade war as well as a severe shortage of labor, the company decided to start seeking materials from within the U.S. instead. His years of hard work made it that much more difficult to witness the derailment’s ongoing impacts on his properties, the business owner said.

After hearing about the derailment, Wang grew increasingly worried as he learned about the toxic chemicals released from the train. He expected management from Norfolk Southern to communicate with him in regards to vital information–– but he received less than he anticipated.

“Five days later, Norfolk Southern trains resumed their operations on the railroad, so I thought maybe they will come to our business also,” he said. “But nobody came to us to offer any assistance, to share some information with us, to say ‘ou can come back to work, this place is safe.’ I thought maybe it was safe already because I saw their trains running again. But before we do that, I cannot take the risk to ask our workers to come back without any information from the local authorities.”

Knowing that the toxic chemicals could have serious health-related impacts on Wang’s workers, inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tested the air quality on the properties. EPA concluded that the air quality in the buildings met the standards of safety, and that it was Wang’s decision as to whether he wanted his workers to come back.

“I still have that inspection report; we documented everything,” Wang said. “So I immediately asked all my employees to come back to work the following day. Although a few employees complained, I said we have the inspection report from EPA, they are authorized inspectors so we trust them. So all the workers came back that morning.

“A few hours later, I got a call that people became sick with the same symptoms: red eyes, chest pain, nausea, dizziness,” Wang recalled.

He asked his sick employees to seek medical help and to return with doctor’s notes. Those medical directives, he said, advised the patients to immediately stop working, take medication and stay home. 

“At that time, I made the decision to shut down those plants and also the wholesale business,” Wang said. “I cannot take that risk. I cannot put my employees at risk. Since then, we’ve stayed shut down.”

On two occasions in the weeks after the derailment, Norfolk Southern asked that Wang sign an agreement permitting them to use his properties for their clean-up operations, said Wang.

“The first time they offered me $20,000 as an inconvenience fee for using our land,” he said. “I did not sign the agreement. I said: ‘One week later, you ask me to sign the paperwork, but you already did a lot of work on our property. I’m not sure the terms in your agreement are consistent with what you have been doing on our property. Because you did not want to share any information with me, how can I sign that agreement?’”

According to Conlin, the derailment was not an unpredictable incident. 

“This was a totally foreseeable tragedy that occurred,” he said. “It’s also one that could’ve been avoided. Norfolk Southern has had an operational profit model that they have been pushing for the last several years which has been fueled by drastic cuts in reasonable safety measures and in personnel.”

Conlin continued, “When you’re putting those profits over safety, things like this are gonna happen. That’s why Norfolk Southern has had the highest derailment rate of any of the major train operations in the country. Year, after year, after year. Those decisions before Feb. 3, 2023, led us to that event and led us to all the tragedies that have occurred thereafter.”

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, Norfolk Southern indeed had the most derailments of all railroad companies in Ohio from 2019 to 2022, with 67 accidents. According to Surface Transportation Board employment data, Norfolk Southern reduced its workforce by 39 percent from 2011 to 2021, an aspect that Wang’s legal team believes ultimately contributed to the derailment.

“On top of that,” Conlin added, “the decisions they made after the derailment about how they were gonna handle the derailment, how they were gonna handle the fire that was occurring and the chemical spill with the controlled burn that they did in large part so they could get the rails back up and running again in a week––which they did––that has also exacerbated the issue, and those decisions in and of themselves have caused damages to Mr. Wang’s businesses.”

Moving forward, Wang struggles to remain hopeful that his businesses will recover. 

“A lawsuit is the only option right now,” he said. “I feel like our future with this industry is canceled, we have no future. The government never gave me any assistance, so what can I do? My only solution is a lawsuit.”

In pursuing a lawsuit, Wang’s legal team aims to shed light on what they perceive as Norfolk Southern’s severe mishandling of the derailment.

“Our end goal is that we can try to move this suit as quickly as possible and try to mitigate some of the damages that Mr. Wang and his businesses are suffering before they become permanent, and at least get that moving as quickly as we can because Norfolk Southern just wasn’t gonna do it on their own,” Conlin said.

“Norfolk Southern keeps saying that they are there for the community and when you look at the things they’ve done, they’re taking care of the small individuals,” he added. “But when they’re confronted with somebody with documented and objective losses, losses to this level, that’s when they turn their backs. They want the PR for it; I don’t think they actually wanna help. So we’re going to find out a whole lot about how truthful they’re being in all the statements they’ve made in the next weeks and months.”

Norfolk Southern declined the AFRO’s request for comment.