Legal News

CSX Settles Baltimore Tunnel Fire Case

CSX Transportation Inc. (CSXT), subsidiary of CSX Corp. of Jacksonville, Fla., announced on Feb. 13 its agreement to pay the city of Baltimore $2 million to settle litigation over the July 18, 2001, train derailment and hazmat fire in the Howard Street Tunnel under downtown Baltimore.

"Rather than continuing to litigate, both parties have agreed to dedicate shared resources and energy to further enhance safety and security in the city," Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's mayor, and Michael Ward, chairman, president, and CEO of CSX Corp., said in a joint statement about the tunnel fire settlement.

On July 18, 2001, an eastbound CSXT freight train derailed 11 of its 60 cars while passing through the Howard Street Tunnel. A derailed tank car containing tripropylene was punctured, and the escaping tripropylene ignited. The fire spread to the contents of several adjacent cars, creating heat, smoke and fumes that restricted access to the tunnel for several days. A 40-inch diameter water main directly above the tunnel broke in the hours following the accident and flooded the tunnel with millions of gallons of water. Five emergency responders sustained minor injuries while involved with the on-site emergency. Total costs associated with the accident, including response and clean-up costs, were estimated at about $12 million.

Without admitting any fault, the railroad agreed to pay $2 million for costs incurred by the city from the derailment and fire; the two parties will increase communications about rail shipments (sharing access to police radio frequencies, surveillance images from tunnel security cameras, and information about shipping patterns for use in planning future security measures) and will request an inspection of the tunnel by federal and state regulatory authorities. CSXT agreed to carry out what those authorities say should be done.

Additional information on the derailment and fire can be found at http://www.ntsb.gov/publictn/2004/RAB0408.pdf.

Additionally, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) fined CSXT a hefty $227,000 on Feb. 13 for the failure of a highway-rail grade crossing warning system to activate in advance of approaching trains in Fonda, N.Y.

The FRA fine resulted from the investigation into a Feb. 11, 2005, fatal train-vehicle collision. FRA said it assessed the statutory maximum of $27,000 for interference with the normal functioning of a grade crossing warning system that resulted in an activation failure, plus $5,000 for each of 30 counts for not reporting the activation failure within the required 15-day period. An additional $5,000 for each of 10 counts was assessed for previous events of interference that resulted in a false activation at the same crossing, the agency said.

"Railroads have a duty to ensure that grade crossing active warning devices, including flashing lights and gates, work properly and to make timely reports when they fail," FRA Joseph Boardman said. "Failure to do either is unacceptable."

For more information, contact FRA at http://www.fra.dot.gov.

Rocky Flats Neighbors Awarded $554 Million For Contamination

After nearly four months of trial and 17 days of deliberation, a Colorado federal jury on Feb. 14 awarded a total of $554 million, consisting of $354 million in compensatory damages, and $200 million in punitive damages, to a class of thousands of property owners whose land was contaminated with plutonium released from the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant.

The jury verdict culminates a 16-year legal battle waged by neighbors of the plant against defendants Dow Chemical Co. and Rockwell International Corp., the private contractors that operated the Rocky Flats Weapons Plant for the U.S. Department of Energy from 1952 through 1989.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's a great victory for the plaintiffs," said Merrill Davidoff, the lead trial lawyer for the plaintiffs and a senior member of the law firm of Berger & Montague, P.C., based in Philadelphia (http://www.bergermontague.com). "This is what we have been waiting for, and working for, all these years. The jury found that 50 years of lies and cover-up and pollution were enough," he said.

The jury found that both Dow and Rockwell were legally liable for trespass and nuisance, and found both contractors liable for punitive damages. Punitive damages are awarded where conduct is found to be "willful and wanton."

"In awarding punitive damages, the jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Dow and Rockwell had engaged in reckless and deliberate conduct that hurt their neighbors," Davidoff said.

The Rocky Flats plant made triggers and other components for nuclear weapons during the Cold War period. Plaintiffs argued, and the jury agreed, that Dow and Rockwell operated the facility dangerously in a deliberate or reckless fashion and released radioactive plutonium offsite, contaminating properties in the neighborhoods downwind from the facility.

The case was filed in 1990 on behalf of 12,000 property owners near the plant, located in a highly populated area about 17 miles northeast of downtown Denver. Plaintiffs alleged that the contractors had operated the plant in a way that contaminated their property with plutonium, a highly radioactive material that can cause cancer, and had created a health risk for people living near the plant. Although the buildings at the plant have been torn down, plaintiffs also alleged that plutonium remained buried there, and continued to reach the surface and move off-site.

Attorneys for the defendants said that the federal government was responsible for paying the damages and that the government would decide whether to appeal the verdict.

Additional information on the Rocky Flats site can be found at http://www.epa.gov/region8/sf/sites/co/rocky.html.

This article originally appeared in the 02/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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