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NTSB: Confusion Preceded NJ Derailment

Monday, December 3, 2012

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Confusion over a signal may have contributed to a train derailment that spewed clouds of toxic vapors over a New Jersey neighborhood on Friday, federal authorities say.

More than 100 residents of a 12-square-block section of the Paulsboro, NJ, area, remained out of their homes Sunday (Dec. 2) after being ordered to evacuate Friday night (Nov. 30).

Seven cars in the 84-car CSX-Conrail freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed about 7 a.m. Friday  when the rail bridge buckled—the second derailment at that site in three and a half years.

The cars smashed into Mantua Creek below the trestle, with one—carrying 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride—splitting open and dumping its contents into the creek. The leak immediately spewed a thick, odorous white fog over the area.

Paulsboro NJ derailment - 11.30.12

The same bridge failed in 2009, causing another derailment. The bridge was rebuilt and inspected in 2010.

No one on the train was reported injured, but dozens of area residents flocked to local hospitals with respiratory complaints.

Emergency Response, Evacuation

Federal, state and local authorities swarmed to the scene in Paulsboro, NJ, about 17 miles south and across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Responders included the Coast Guard—not for search and rescue, but to stop the leak and begin to clean it up.

After the accident, the county’s Office of Emergency Management issued a “shelter in place” order, with residents ordered indoors and the city’s schools locked down until early afternoon Friday. Bus routes serving the area were suspended, and roads in and out of town were closed. Some interstate highway ramps reopened later Friday, and the sheltering order was lifted in the afternoon.

TV helicopter footage showed at least two tankers in Mantua Creek and one hanging over a trestle, part of which appeared collapsed.

No evacuation was ordered all day Friday,  and officials declared late in the afternoon that the situation was under control. But authorities changed that stance Friday evening, ordering residents to evacuate because of continuing concerns about leaking vinyl chloride from the tanker car.

Officials did not know when residents would be allowed to return to their homes. The exact number of those evacuated was not clear. Conrail said it had provided 106 hotel rooms on Friday night.

Signal Cited

The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the incident, and NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman was among the team that arrived on the scene Saturday. Officials could not immediately determine, among other things, whether the derailment caused the bridge collapse or vice versa.

Paulsboro train derailment - 11.30.12
CBS Philly

Video footage shows tanker cars in the creek in South Jersey and rail cars dangling from the bridge.

At a news conference Saturday (Dec. 1), Hersman said the engineer and conductor in the CSX engine at the head of the train encountered an unusual situation when they arrived Friday morning at the swing bridge, which is owned and maintained by Conrail. The bridge was built in 1873.

"They expected to see it open," Hersman told reporters.

Instead, they found the bridge closed—but the signal was red, indicating the bridge was open. The train engineer tried three times to get the bridge signal to turn to green using a keypad, but it stayed red, reporters were told.

At one point, the conductor got out and inspected the tracks on foot, then "told the locomotive engineer everything looked good," Hersman said.

After about six minutes, the train crew spoke with the dispatcher who monitors the bridge and was given the OK to cross.

Monitoring equipment showed that the train crossed the bridge at 8 mph, two miles per hour below the posted speed limit.

It was not until the two locomotives and first five cars made it across that the crew looked back and saw the bridge buckled and cars piled up in the creek, Hersman said.

Locking Mechanism Cited

At a news conference Sunday (Dec. 2), Hersman indicated that investigators would also be examining the swing bridge's locking mechanism.

"This is a very complex [bridge] operation," Hersman said. "There is a lot of tonnage that goes over this bridge and a lot of hazardous materials."

Conrail crews  had been reporting problems with the signal in recent days and weeks, and the rail company had been looking into the problem only the day before, she said.

Bridge Inspections

The bridge is subject to several different types of inspections, including a biannual structure assessment that occurred in May and most recently on Nov. 30, and a quarterly mechanical examination. Inspectors also look at the parts of the bridge underwater once every five years. The next such inspection was scheduled for September 2014.

Inspections of freight rail bridges are left to the bridge owners, and the results are not made public.

NTSB investigators have interviewed train crews that recently used the bridge, and some of them said there have been signal issues with the bridge, which swings across the river when trains need to cross the waterway. Herman said a team from Conrail was at the structure on Thursday.

The same bridge also buckled in August 2009, derailing a train bearing 16 cars of coal. That problem was attributed to a bridge misalignment, and the bridge was rebuilt in 2010.

Hersman said the NTSB had requested inspection records dating to before the 2009 incident. She also raised the possibility that the bridge had sustained some previously undetected damage from flooding caused by Hurricane Sandy.

Strange Noises

Residents told officials and reporters that they had been hearing “noises they had not heard before” before the accident.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose district includes Paulsboro, said he had been told that neighbors had complained about the bridge noise in recent weeks and that Conrail was looking into it. But he said he didn't have any details, and news reports said that Conrail had not yet investigated the noise.

Paulsboro derailment - 11.30.12

A white fog—vapors from vinyl chloride, a toxic chemical used to make plastic—bloomed from the railcars and dissipated an hour later. Officials were concerned about another release when the cars are moved.

Conrail spokesman John Enright said Friday that the company was concerned with safety and cooperating with authorities, but he would not take any questions.

Later, Conrail issued a statement that said the company was "working closely with all of the first responders and officials" on the accident.

"We very much regret the impacts to the community and deeply appreciate the efforts of the first response teams and officials," the statement said. "Conrail’s first concern is public safety, and every effort will be made to ensure that this situation is resolved as safely and as quickly as possible."

Conrail said it had "assembled experts" to test and monitor "any impacts to air, water or soil" and would "provide assistance to those nearby residents who sought medical care."

"All aspects of this incident, including the track, bridge, rail cars and locomotives, are part of the investigation," Conrail said. "We will be working closely with federal investigators to determine the cause."

Crash Response

Removing the tanker cars from the creek and bridge will be a delicate operation that raises the risk of another chemical release. A gigantic crane was being transported on a barge from New York Harbor to handle that task, but officials had no timetable for that recovery effort.

Paulsboro derailment - 11.30.12
Only one of the tanker cars, containing 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, lost its contents, authorities said.

'Precarious Position'

“There are cars that are in a precarious position,” Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said at a briefing about 11 a.m. ET Friday. “When they have to start moving these cars, you want to make sure they’re protected.”

Conrail called an environmental-response firm to put booms in the creek, and county hazmat teams were doing metering and monitoring.

Vinyl chloride is used to make plastic and vinyl products, including PVC pipes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which has labeled the chemical a Group A human carcinogen.

"Short-term exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride in air has resulted in central nervous system effects, such as dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches," and cancer "is a major concern from exposure to vinyl chloride through inhalation," according to the EPA.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Construction chemicals; EPA; hazardous materials; Health and safety; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Rail; Railcars

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