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Official Response to Paulsboro Chemical Spill Outrages Some Residents

Legislators press for changes in law that allows railroad companies to conduct their own safety inspections.

City, state, federal, and Conrail officials are being blamed for a lack of clear communication -- if not outright miscommunication -- about a recent environmental disaster in Paulsboro. Adding to residents' anger is the belief that the incident got short shrift because New Jersey officials were more focused on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

On November 30, a Conrail train jumped the tracks on a bridge over the Delaware River, breaching tanker cars that leaked dangerous vinyl chloride into the air and water. Fearful of the environmental consequences, residents are looking to the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal EPA to provide guidance on whether to resume normal activities or seek ongoing medical attention.

Official response to the chemical spill led State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-West Deptford), whose district includes Paulsboro, to give the Unified Command response team an "F" for delaying scheduled public meetings and issuing conflicting and confusing orders following the derailment. (The response team comprises representatives of the U.S. Coast Guard, New Jersey DEP, New Jersey Office of Emergency Management (OEM), Paulsboro Fire Department and Conrail.)

“The communication has been as poorly handled as possible," Sweeney said. "I don’t think it’s intentional. I think they just mismanaged it. Shelter [at home], don’t shelter; close the schools, open the school; public hearing, no public hearing. That doesn’t give the public any confidence,” he told the South Jersey Times in an interview confirmed by his spokesperson, Chris Donnelly.

Other lawmakers are seeking to change laws that enable railroad companies to conduct their own safety screenings without public oversight -- a loophole they say allows accidents like the one on Conrail’s 150-year-old bridge to happen.

Residents echoed those sentiments, calling on Unified Command to do a better job of answering questions, providing medical care, and being honest about the potential short- and long- term health risks they face from exposure to the gas used to manufacture PVC, which is used in plastic pipes and wire coatings.

The Centers for Disease Control warns, “Breathing high levels of vinyl chloride for short periods of time can cause dizziness, sleepiness, unconsciousness, and at extremely high levels can cause death. Breathing vinyl chloride for long periods of time can result in permanent liver damage, immune reactions, nerve damage, and liver cancer.”

“My son complained that every time he breathed it felt like someone was stabbing him in the ribs. I could hear him crackling. What if we get cancer in ten years? I think they should have a doctor monitor us,” worried Antonette Rodriguez, an uninsured mother of three young children. Like many of her neighbors, Rodriguez was directed to “shelter indoors” rather than evacuate for eight days, forcing her and her family to stay inside until crews determined the air was safe to breathe.

Rodriguez kept her kids in breathing masks for a week , and marched the few blocks to the public assistance center as soon as officials said she could go outside. But instead of getting answers, she says she got turned away.

“I asked, ‘Is there anybody doing health screenings? What should I do?’ The lady said I wasn’t in the evacuation area so she wasn’t going to tell me anything. I wasn’t going down there so they could hand me a check. I just wanted some answers,” she said.

Reassuring Residents

Unified Command reassured residents via its dedicated website that the highest detected concentrations of vinyl chloride were hundreds of times lower than “the concentrations that would produce symptoms from the short-term exposures that could occur here.”

A Conrail spokesperson told NJ Spotlight that the company has paid for 1,100 hotel nights, daycare, transportation, pet sheltering, groceries, laundry, and more for evacuated residents. It also set up a hotline staffed by trained personnel affiliated with the Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health consulting firm to field questions from the public.

“We appreciate that people may have questions . . . and our claims center will remain open until after the last rail car is removed from the scene and until there’s no longer a perceived need,” said spokesperson Mike Hotra.

But Mildred Yake, who sheltered at home with her husband, says her pregnant granddaughter called the hotline and got no reassurance about the possible effects to her unborn baby.

“They said they don’t know,” fretted the 56-year-old renter who complains that she, her husband, and her son have been suffering from unrelenting headaches, nausea, breathing problems, diarrhea, and stomach pains since the incident, which occurred two blocks from her house.

She doesn’t just blame Conrail or Unified Command for a litany of perceived failures that includes allegations that the team lied in saying the accident occurred around 7 am when those who live next to the tracks heard it happen at 2:50 am; neglected to notify the community about the derailment and gas leak until many hours later, despite a town-wide public-alert speaker system; opened the schools until 9 am without telling parents their children would be walking or driving through contaminated air.

Yake, along with other Paulsboro residents, also blame Gov. Chris Christie, who has not visited or issued a public statement of concern, choosing to send Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno in his stead.

“He’s more concerned about the people on the shore with Sandy . . . He shoulda came down here and seen how it affected everybody,” Yake said. “He cares more about them because he takes his family down there and he’s been down there his whole life. Paulsboro doesn’t matter to nobody.”

Christie spokesperson Mike Drewniak calls the accusation a “bad rap,” given the governor was intensely engaged in putting together a federal aid request for Hurricane Sandy cleanup and reconstruction. Paulsboro, he says, received “the deep and persistent attention of the key and relevant administration officials,” most pressingly, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin, his staff, and the department of health.

“While it’s easy to understand people’s frustrations in the middle of something like that. . . he was consumed with perhaps the most important issue to confront New Jersey in its modern history when this unfortunate incident occurred," Drewniak said. "Even so, Paulsboro certainly did not lack attention from state government in the slightest.”

Monitoring Air Quality

One of four state agencies involved in Paulsboro response efforts, the DEP spearheaded Unified Command’s air-monitoring plan, set up stationary air monitors throughout the city, and sent crews on foot around the affected neighborhoods to read levels on handheld devices. These efforts add to those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which sent its Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer Bus, a mobile environmental lab, to take real-time air samples, and those of the health department, which tested inside several schools and a WIC center.

On Friday, the health department began a week-long follow-up when it, with the help of the Centers for Disease Control, conducted its first in-person interviews with all first responders and a sample of community members and prepared to mail health surveys to every residential address in Paulsboro. The surveys aim to collect data on symptoms, care received, and how emergency information was obtained.

For two weeks after the accident, the Office of Emergency Management had one to three employees onsite at all times, taking them out of the 40-strong rotation of personnel involved in Sandy relief. They stayed on site to “amplify messaging,” said external affairs officer Mary Goepfert, and to provide a liaison between Unified Command and the state, though ultimately no such support was needed. Goepfert says the diversion of personnel didn’t present so much of a drain on Sandy resources as a common challenge to the office.

“It was an emergency,” she said. “Every emergency presents challenges.”

The DOT also offered assistance, though a spokesperson says in the end, staff provided little more than road closures and traffic control around the affected area.

Unified Command referred questions of cost to Conrail, which responded that it would not speculate in the middle of an ongoing incident. As to whether taxpayers will bear those costs, Hotra replied, “We recognize that the public sector response to this incident was significant and sustained. We welcome a conversation and will address public-sector costs on a case-by-case basis.”

The public may bear additional costs in the future, however, if anticipated legislation is introduced into Congress by Reps. Rob Andrews (D-1st), who represents Paulsboro, Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd), and others, who visited the site and expressed surprise and disappointment that neither federal, state, nor local law requires public oversight of the private safety-inspection process.

“The basic problem is the bridge is really not routinely inspected by any public entity,” Andrews said on Friday. “Conrail didn’t do anything wrong here but the problem is we set up a system where the people who stand to benefit [from a declaration that a bridge is safe] make that determination.”

Crafting a New Law

Andrews expects to work with his colleagues in the House of Representatives to craft a bill that will require more oversight, at an added expense to taxpayers. According to a lawsuit filed against Conrail, a train not only derailed on the bridge in 2009, it generated 23 trouble tickets in the year leading up to the November 30 accident, including nine in October.

It’s believed the latest incident occurred because the train engineer and a dispatcher deemed it safe to run a red light that, although they didn’t know it at the time, indicated that the swing bridge had not locked properly the last time it closed. The National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating.

“The [private companies] pay for and own their own infrastructure,” Andrews said. “I agree the right balance is that in exchange for more public oversight the public should bear some cost.”

Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed similar concerns after visiting the accident scene and said he, too, might consider legislation once a final determination has been made about the cause.

“This train was carrying at least four cars of a highly toxic, highly flammable chemical over a bridge that contains parts that date to 1873, just four years after the completion of the nation’s first Transcontinental Railroad,” he emailed.

“These private rails are a necessity for the thousands of workers who are employed at businesses who rely on them to import raw materials. Once we learn the details of what happened, I believe that we must work to better maintain all railways and better protect the communities that they travel through.”

In the meantime, approximately 100 residents have filed a mass-action lawsuit against Conrail, alleging that the levels of vinyl chloride released by the derailment were unsafe and warrant ongoing medical supervision at Conrail’s expense.

“This was a completely avoidable accident,” said Mark Cuker, one of two attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “There was really very extensive and almost mindboggling negligence given the number of problems and how recently they occurred. The train literally went through a red light and what’s really perhaps the most disconcerting about this is that they weren’t just transporting cattle or coal, they were transporting tremendous quantities of a very toxic and explosive substance.”

In an answer filed Thursday to the complaint, Conrail indicates both agreement and disagreement with the 99 alleged points. In response to a request for an explanation of its positions, Conrail released a statement that said, “Conrail regrets the disruption that this incident has caused Paulsboro residents. Conrail does not, however, comment on ongoing litigation.”

Tara Nurin is a freelance journalist based on the Camden, NJ, waterfront. Since leaving a ten-year career as a TV news reporter in 2005, she’s worked as a national columnist, city editor, features reporter, publicity director and documentary producer. The award-winning reporter has lived all over the world and is fluent in Spanish and French.

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