A railroad company responsible for a deadly 2005 chemical accident in Graniteville must pay a $4 million penalty for damage to creeks, lakes and forests caused by the train wreck and chlorine leak.
The civil fine against Norfolk Southern, which won't be final for 30 days, focuses on the environmental impacts of the Jan. 6, 2005, train wreck. Many wrongful death and injury claims have been brought in separate suits by families exposed to the chlorine.
But federal authorities said Monday's enforcement action sends a strong message to companies not to pollute the environment.
The penalty was announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice as part of a settlement with Norfolk Southern. The federal government sued for damages two years ago.
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"This agreement includes a significant civil penalty for the catastrophic chlorine spill, which resulted in loss of human life and damage to the environment, and ensures that those responsible are held accountable under the law," said Bob Dreher, principal deputy assistant attorney general for the U.S. Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
The consent decree says Norfolk Southern does not admit any liability.
Efforts to reach Norfolk Southern spokeswoman Susan Terpay were unsuccessful Monday.
The 2005 train wreck is one of the worst railroad chemical accidents in more than two decades.
Nine people died and hundreds were injured when chlorine leaked from a wrecked train in the tiny Aiken County town. The rapidly moving train ran off the main track and onto a spur at Avondale Mills, where it smashed into a parked locomotive. Some 5,000 people were evacuated after the wreck.
Federal investigators later determined that a Norfolk Southern crew forgot to put a track switch into the proper position, causing the train to run off the main line.
Sometimes forgotten is the environmental damage caused by the wreck and spill that sent a cloud of chlorine over Graniteville.
Fish died in area creeks, as did many of the trees and shrubbery that prevented soil erosion.
Monday's enforcement action results from violation of the federal clean water act and hazardous materials laws, federal authorities said.
It includes a requirement that Norfolk Southern spend $100,000 planting trees and restoring vegetation around waterways that suffered from the train crash. The idea is to stabilize stream banks so soil will not continue to wash into Horse Creek and surrounding waterways.
Waterways were polluted by both the chlorine and the diesel fuel that spilled from the wrecked trains, federal documents show. In one instance, a "rainbow sheen" was seen floating on the surface of Horse Creek within days of the wreck, according to a federal complaint against Norfolk Southern.
In addition to planting 610 trees, Norfolk Southern also must stock 3,000 fish in Langley Pond, a popular lake south of Graniteville that was polluted by the chemical accident. Fish to be restocked in the pond include channel catfish, bluegill and largemouth bass.
The decree also says Norfolk Southern must provide more training for its workers.
In 2008, Norfolk Southern reached an undisclosed settlement with Avondale Mills, which was next to the rail spur where the accident happened. The company claimed the chemical spill corroded its equipment and led to its closing. During that trial, attorneys for the railroad said Norfolk Southern spent $26 million on cleanup associated with the crash.
The company has said it settled wrongful death lawsuits and reached settlements with many of those injured by the chemical release. The details of those settlements have not been released