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Evacuation Grows, Tempers Shorten in NJ

Thursday, December 6, 2012

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One hundred more New Jersey homes have been evacuated near the site of a toxic chemical release from a train derailment, and the area’s congressman is calling for an end to self-policing of the nation’s 77,000 privately owned rail bridges.

Tempers flared as the federal response to Friday’s derailment of an 84-car Conrail freight train dragged into a fifth day.

An additional 100 homes were ordered evacuated late Tuesday (Dec. 4), with those residents joining more than 400 who had been told to leave on Friday night (Nov. 30). In addition, the evacuation period was lengthened by one day through Sunday (Dec. 9).

Investigation Curbed

Even the 17-member National Transportation Safety Board investigative team—which includes the board’s director—has been prevented from closely inspecting the wreckage or the Mantua Creek Bridge where the 7 a.m. derailment occurred, due to continued elevated levels of vinyl chloride vapors in the air.

NTSB investigation - NJ derailment

NTSB investigators examine one of two locomotives that had just cleared the bridge before it buckled.

Meanwhile, the team has kept busy combing through records and conducting interviews.

The toxic chemical spilled from a 25,000-gallon tanker car that was one of seven that fell from the low bridge into Mantua Creek in Paulsboro, NJ. Hundreds of gallons of the chemical remain in the tanker, authorities said this week.

Federal investigators are looking at malfunctioning equipment in the century-old bridge and other factors as causes for, or contributors to, the accident. The review includes a dispatcher's decision to allow the train to cross the bridge on a red signal.

The two locomotives and first five cars had just cleared the bridge when it buckled.

‘We Didn’t Anticipate This’

Because of the chemical leak, “shelter-in-place” orders restricting residents to their homes have been imposed and lifted several times since the accident, and schools and courts have been closed. Finally, the Coast Guard decided to evacuate additional homes Tuesday, rather than continue to confine residents.

"We didn't anticipate this, that we would [go] all of last night," still seeing elevated levels, Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore, whose agency is leading the disaster response, said at a news conference Tuesday.

Evacuation map - USCG
U.S. Coast Guard

A Coast Guard map shows the New Jersey evacuation boundaries as of 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. Hundreds of residents have been displaced and local schools and courts closed all week.

Moore said the Coast Guard hoped to have the remaining vinyl chloride removed from the tanker by Sunday, but a growing chorus of critics called the response slow.

Independent Inspections Urged

The accident prompted U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D- NJ) to call for reforming regulations involving inspections of privately owned rail bridges like Conrail’s at Mantua Creek. The bridge is in Andrews' district.

Rail bridge owners are allowed to conduct their own annual inspections of the structures and are not required to disclose the results.

Parts of the Mantua Creek Bridge date to 1873, and the NTSB says Conrail cannot document a quarterly inspection of the bridge since June. The agency also said that the bridge had been the subject of 27 repair “trouble tickets” in the last year—and nine in the month before the wreck.

"Self-reporting isn't working here," said Andrews, speaking in a conference call reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We need to have a federal authority inspect these bridges and not just take their word for it."

He said he would seek to change the law to require independent inspections by a federal authority, such as the Federal Railroad Administration. That agency does not regulate rail bridge structural safety, though it monitors rail companies' inspection programs.

NTSB investigators

NTSB investigators brief agency chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman near the derailment scene in Paulsboro, NJ.  A vinyl chloride leak from the train wreck has kept the inspectors from the accident site.

Andrews said the "normal pressures in any business" might prevent rail bridge owners from making needed repairs without independent inspections.

Cleanup Criticized

Andrews was among those who criticized the pace of the cleanup. "This is too slow," he said. "This can be done safely, but more quickly."

The Coast Guard scheduled a community open house for Wednesday night to answer questions regarding air monitoring, environmental information, community assistance, and community protection.

Meanwhile, Moore said, the job could not be rushed.

"It's a very dangerous operation to work," she told reporters.

"Would I have hoped that we would be further along by now? Absolutely.  . . . We're moving as swiftly as we can, considering the very complicated" situation.


Tagged categories: Accidents; Federal Railroad Administration; Health and safety; NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board); Rail; Railcars; Regulations

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