State Policy on Emergency Response Puts Residents in Harm’s Way, Report Says

Tom Johnson | December 10, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Administration’s hush-hush approach to information about toxic sites violates federal law, organization argues

Credit: Shumita Basu/NewsWorks
A train pulling chemical cars rolls through Paulsboro, N.J., where a 2012 derailment and spill has raised questions about the safety of transporting hazardous materials by rail.
The Christie administration is failing to ensure the public has access to up-to-date emergency response plans for nearly a hundred facilities handling extremely hazardous chemicals, according to a labor and environmental organization.

A report issued yesterday by the New Jersey Work Environment Council argued that many local communities and counties fail to allow residents to see emergency response plans that address what to do in the event of a spill or other release from these facilities — a failure that is in violation of federal law and could be dangerous to them and to emergency responders.

The council claimed that the Christie administration should be ensuring access to the plans, not only to protect emergency responders who often arrive on scene without knowing the dangers posed by the chemical released, but also to the surrounding community, which sometimes is unwittingly exposed to the toxic releases.

The Christie administration did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

The problem surfaced dramatically in 2012 when a Conrail train derailed in Paulsboro in South Jersey, dumping tens of thousands of pounds of vinyl chloride, a carcinogen, into the air, sending 28 people to the hospital.

In a separate report on the incident, the National Safety Transportation Board said emergency first responders did not evacuate or properly communicate the potential dangers of the spill, which occurred about 7 a.m., to residents. Trisha Sheehan, a Paulsboro resident, said children were walking to school and back through clouds of vinyl chloride gas, not knowing the hazards.

According to the report, public access to these emergency response plans as required under a 1986 federal law is critical given that New Jersey has more than 3,000 facilities that use large amounts of hazardous chemicals.

Up to 12 million people live near those facilities, according to data compiled by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to the report.

The council noted that a majority of the communities and counties (68 percent) near 93 facilities that handle the most extreme hazardous substances failed to respond to requests for information about their emergency response plans, in part citing security concerns.

“It makes it more likely that preparedness and emergency response measures will prove inadequate in the event of a toxic release, explosion or fire — and that New Jerseyans could be seriously injured as a result,” according to the report.

Beyond facilities handling hazardous chemicals, the organization is also concerned “about the growing use of transporting shale oil into the state to refineries.”

Highly flammable Bakken crude oil now is carried on railroad tankers through at least 11 counties in New Jersey, according to the report. The tankers run through many suburban areas, including places like Pennington in Mercer County, on the way to Philadelphia.

Still, the cheaper oil has helped drive down gasoline prices, dropping the cost of refueling to less than $3 a gallon, and some analysts predict even further declines in upcoming months.

“How can the public be prepared if the information about the hazards is withheld,’’ said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Why should the people of New Jersey be kept in the dark?’’

In Bergen County, Bakken oil trains travel through Norwood, Harrington Park, Closter, Haworth, Dumont, Bergenfield, Teaneck, Bogota, Ridgefield Park, and Ridgefield.

“The governor’s failure to ensure public oversight required by law means that New Jersey’s residents are not protected from toxic disaster,’’ said Rick Engler, director of the Work Environment Council.

Debra Coyle McFadden, assistant director of the council, agreed, saying counties and municipalities are not being given clear direction by the Christie administration to provide the necessary information. “The only reason the Christie administration has for denying access to information is to protect executives who maintain highly hazardous operations from public scrutiny,’’ she said.