First Responders Share Blame for Problems at Paulsboro Toxic Spill, NTSB Says

Tara Nurin | July 30, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Report assigns most responsibility to Conrail, but recommends changes in training for emergency workers, municipal planning

Credit: Ed Hille
Work crews prepared to hoist the derailed tanker cars from the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro.
New Jersey may revamp the way it trains first responders and requires municipalities to plan for emergencies. The catalyst for this change: A report issued yesterday by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) that finds the state bears some responsibility for the botched response to the train derailment that dumped 20,000 pounds of toxic vinyl chloride in Paulsboro in 2012.

The NTSB blames the derailment and most of the chaos in its immediate aftermath on Consolidated Rail Corp. (Conrail), the Philadelphia-based company that operates the train and rails. But the report also faults several state agencies for failing to properly prepare emergency responders and neglecting to enforce laws that require municipalities to update their emergency preparedness plans in a timely fashion.

The NTSB concluded that Conrail caused the derailment by not fixing known problems with the locks on a moveable bridge and allowing untrained conductors to determine the safety of malfunctioning rail parts.

The derailment occurred when a dispatcher allowed the train’s conductor to proceed over a bridge that was broadcasting a trouble signal after the conductor told the dispatcher it looked safe to cross. The spill of vinyl chloride, which can cause liver damage, cancer, and central nervous system disorders, sent 28 residents and several responders to seek medical attention the day of the accident. Many more are suing Conrail for ongoing medical issues.

Though the report doesn’t assign direct blame to the state, it does conclude that some of its agencies exacerbated subsequent problems. Most egregiously, Paulsboro’s fire chief, who acted as incident commander in the hours following the derailment, contributed to the consequences of the accident by ignoring “established hazardous materials response protocols for worker protection and community exposure to the vinyl chloride release.”

To mitigate similar fallout from future accidents, the NTSB issued five of 20 recommendations to the New Jersey Bureau of Fire Department Services, the State Police Office of Emergency Management, and the departments of health and labor and workforce development. The recommendations are not binding, but the NTSB says approximately 80 percent of its recommendations do eventually get adopted.

Breakdowns in Response

According to the NTSB, after the train derailed around 7 a.m. on November 29, 2012, emergency crews who responded to the scene did not evacuate or properly communicate the potential dangers of the chemical spill to residents. They also underestimated the hazards to themselves — working without respiratory gear and setting up command centers within zones containing dangerous levels of air pollution.

The NTSB chides Conrail for waiting three hours before providing emergency response crews with the “consist” — the document that describes train cars and their contents and, in many cases, contains information and safety instructions about hazardous materials aboard.

However, leading a response that NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt described as “abysmal,” incident commander Alfonso Giampola disregarded guidance written in the industry-standard Emergency Response Guide, advice from hazardous materials emergency responders, and federal emergency response standards. Further, his team disseminated inaccurate information to residents and took several hours to use modeling tools to assess toxic exposure.

The report concluded, “New Jersey firefighter certification and training requirements were not effective as demonstrated by the failure of emergency responders to conduct operations in accordance with established health and safety protocols and . . . standards, and their lack of familiarity with available tools to evaluate toxic exposure threats.”

However, the NTSB did slightly exculpate first responders by noting that Conrail disseminated emergency response information that deviated from the Emergency Response Guide information and had the potential to confuse responders making quick decisions about whether to isolate or evacuate people near the scene.

Training Recommendations

To prevent future breakdowns, the NTSB wants the Bureau of Fire Department Services to update its training protocol to incorporate the (unspecified) lessons learned from this accident.

Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-Paulsboro), who ran communications for the Paulsboro emergency response team, says he is offended that the NTSB deflected some blame from Conrail and onto the joint cadre of responders.

“I don’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned but if Conrail personnel had given info needed the responders would have been able to do their jobs better,” he said.

Defenders of the response team point out that the responders, Giampola included, were volunteers doing the best they could under unfamiliar and stressful circumstances. Assembly Transportation Committee Chair John Wisniewski (D-Sayreville) notes that in his additional role as chair of the advisory New Jersey Fire Safety Commission, he’s constantly conducting soul-searching conversations about whether the state’s first responders receive appropriate training for the myriad tasks they may be called upon to perform.

“There’s always a tension,” he said. “How much training can you obtain from a volunteer who’s got a life outside of the volunteer work?”

Planning Recommendations

At the time of the accident on November 30, Paulsboro’s updated emergency preparedness plan was two years overdue. In an NTSB hearing last year, a representative from the state police admitted that a lack of resources prevent his office of emergency preparedness from maintaining oversight over the writing of these local plans, as is its responsibility.

Because of this, the task of enforcement typically falls to the counties or to the municipalities themselves. Paulsboro’s last plan had been written in 2006, six years before the derailment.

The NTSB wants the state police to develop recertification and approval procedures “to ensure that communities maintain accurate, appropriate, and current plans.” In a second recommendation to the state police, the NTSB suggests that the department compel communities to include relevant hazard analysis and risk assessments that address hazardous materials threats, like railroad transportation.

Mary Goepford, spokesperson for the office of emergency preparedness, says her office will evaluate the report to see how “it informs our processes going forward.”

She notes that her training team may decide to place additional emphasis on teaching municipal emergency planners to better conduct risk assessments and reemphasize their ability to apply for USDOT grants that fund these assessments for localities that host the transport of hazardous materials. She also says that her office has worked with Paulsboro since 2012 to develop an updated plan, and that the state’s requirements mirror those required at the federal level.

Burzchelli, for his part, downplays the role of the outdated preparedness plan, which contains information like evacuation instructions, chain of command, and appropriate people to contact, in contributing to the disorganized derailment response.

“It might have been slightly out of date but the plans don’t change that much. Maybe a few people would have changed but in my mind it’s a red herring. The events of the day would not have changed,” he said.

Instead, he agrees with recommendations that rail companies like Conrail advise municipalities when they draw up their specific hazard emergency plans and play a more active role in engaging with local communities to inform them about the hazardous products that are transported near their homes. He also wishes Conrail would set up well-trained emergency-strike teams around the country to more rapidly arrive on the scene of an accident and work in tandem with local responders.

In a statement, a Conrail spokesperson wrote, “Conrail has redoubled its efforts to work with first responders to address hazardous material response. We are pleased to see increased first responder participation in the training we offer.”

In two final recommendations, the NTSB also advised the departments of health and labor and workforce development to “develop an emphasis program that incorporates enforcement and outreach activities to ensure New Jersey state and local public-sector employee comply with the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response regulations.”

Neither agency had comments.