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Chemical Levels Slow Derailment Probe

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

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Levels of vinyl chloride seeping from a derailed freight train spiked Monday (Dec. 3) in southern New Jersey, temporarily halting cleanup work as the federal investigation into the accident continued.

Meanwhile, dozens of residents who were ordered to evacuate late Friday (Nov. 30) after the early-morning derailment learned that they would not be allowed to return home this week, and local schools were closed.

A 17-member National Transportation Safety Board team has been conducting interviews and reviewing records but staying away from the site because of the chemical leak, authorities said. Heavy fog over the weekend has also slowed the cleanup effort.

NTSB investigators at derailment in Paulsboro, NJ

NTSB Investigator In Charge (IIC) Jim Southworth is leading a 17-member investigative team at the scene.

NTSB railroad accident investigator Jim Southworth is leading the team as the Investigator in Charge. Agency chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman is also on the scene with the team.

Chemical Spike

The industrial town of Paulsboro, NJ, was “essentially closed” about 6 a.m. Monday after levels of vinyl chloride topped 1 part per million in the air, reports said.

The new readings came three days after seven cars of an 84-car freight train derailed from a swing bridge that also buckled in 2009, leading to another derailment. The bridge was originally built in 1873.

Friday's accident occurred shortly before 7 a.m., about 17 miles south and across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

One of the tanker cars, which carried 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, was split open by another car when they fell into Mantua Creek below the low bridge.

The chemicals poured into the creek and released a white, odorous cloud of vapor over the area.

NTSB rail investigator Mike Hiller

Rail Investigator Mike Hiller examines one of the trains involved in Friday's accident.

No deaths or serious injuries were reported, but more than 40 area residents were treated at area hospitals for respiratory problems. Vinyl chloride, used in making plastic and vinyl, is a carcinogen that can also cause dizziness and drowsiness and headaches in short-term exposures.

'Still a Potential for Releases'

“There is still a potential for releases in the future even after we take over the car that breached originally,” Coast Guard Capt. Todd Wiemers said at a press conference Sunday (Dec. 2) afternoon. “We are taking all the necessary precautions so everyone can remain safe.”

Crews began working late Sunday to remove the chemical, which had naturally solidified, from the tanker, the Associated Press reported. The work was suspended about 2 a.m. Monday when workers were unable to reach the rest of the chemical at the bottom of the tanker car, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore reported, according to AP.

People from 48 homes were being kept away from a 13-block section of Paulsboro as a precaution against additional accidental releases from the derailed cars, Coast Guard officials said Sunday.

“We don’t want anyone in harm’s way,” said Paulsboro Mayor Jeffery Hamilton. “It is for the safety of the community.”

Investigation Continues

NTSB investigators are working “to identify the point of derailment,” said Hersman, who has been acting as spokesperson at the scene.

Train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ

Vapors from vinyl chloride spilled by a broken tanker car kept investigators at a distance.

She said the Conrail train’s engineer was a 10-year employee who had been on the route for just over a year. The conductor was a four-year employee in his first week on the route.

In a briefing over the weekend, Hersman said that the engineer and conductor had found that the signal on the bridge was apparently not working properly when the train reached it on Friday morning. After the engineer was unable to change the signal using a keypad, the conductor inspected the track on foot and the dispatcher cleared the train to cross.

Not until after the locomotives and first five cars crossed the bridge did the crew notice the wreckage behind it.

“We do have some indication that there are some crews who in the days prior reported there were some issues with this bridge not getting a clear signal,” Hersman said. “We are looking very closely at that.”

2009 Accident

The NTSB has also requested inspection records that predate an August 2009 derailment at the same location. Hersman said investigators were reviewing those records.

Train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ

Signal problems were reported at the bridge, which dates to 1873.

Sixteen coal cars derailed in the 2009 accident, which was blamed on a bridge misalignment. The bridge was rebuilt in 2010.

The tracks were most recently inspected Nov. 20, while structural inspections of the bridge were completed last month and in May.

The next five-year inspection of the span’s underwater components was scheduled for September 2014.

“We are working with the U.S. Coast Guard to get access to the scene,” Hersman told reporters. “Once the site is deemed safe, we will document our findings from the rails, bridge and tankers.”

Monitoring Continues

Air quality monitoring will continue in the days and weeks ahead, authorities said.

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."


Tagged categories: Accidents; Bridges; Federal Trade Commission; Health and safety; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Rail

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