NJ Train Crash Displaces 100, Raises Question About Air Quality

More than 100 people were stranded from their homes in southern New Jersey as officials cleared hazardous gas that emitted from a damaged freight train car.

The home evacuations were ordered just hours after the derailment, said The Associated Press, when air readings revealed increased vinyl chloride levels. The gas is used in the manufacture of plastic PVC, and can lead to sleepiness or dizziness. A total of 106 were evacuated to hotels.

The train derailment sent four tanker cars into a creek where the dangerous gas leaked, sickening dozens, said the AP. Coast Guard Captain, Kathy Moore, said crews would “exclusively be working” on removing the remaining chemicals. At the time of her announcement, the chemicals were in a solid form. Although Moore said there were no signs that other train cars were damaged, she noted that “there’s still a lot we don’t know,” the AP wrote.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is investigating the accident, said the AP, noting that a prior derailment took place on the same “swing-style rail bridge” three years ago. NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman, said her team would, at first, review records, interview witnesses, and handle other parts of the probe remotely, said the AP.

Local authorities told the AP that no Philadelphia area cranes had the capacity to handle the work. A more powerful crane was being brought in, by barge, from the New York Harbor. The AP noted that the delicate operation must avoid rupturing any of the other cars. The derailment occurred at 7:00 a.m. in the industrial town of Paulsboro, Pennsylvania, Friday, and involved a two-locomotive train with 83 freight cars and one caboose. Seven cars derailed, five remained on the bridge, two were nearby, and four were filled with vinyl chlorine; one of those cars ruptured, said the AP.

As we’ve explained, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that acute and high vinyl chloride exposure has led to central nervous system effects and that chronic, long-term exposure has resulted in liver damage. Exposure can increase risks of a rare form of liver cancer in humans. The EPA classified vinyl chloride as a Group a, human carcinogen. The AP noted that the gas, if breathed in in high levels, can lead to fainting; breathing in very high levels can be fatal.

More than 70 area residents and workers were seen in the emergency room and most were released within a few hours, said the AP.

The NTSB noted that the bridge has had a number of rail alignment issues and many were reported last week, just before Friday’s accident, the AP said. Some critical parts of the investigation are on hold pending complete removal of the dangerous vinyl chloride from the area; however, that work was suspended today when vinyl chloride levels reached more than one part per million (ppm) around 6:00 a.m., a dangerous level. Residents were ordered to shelter in their homes with the windows closed; officials canceled school and removed workers from the accident site, said the AP. An “all clear” was issued at 11:00 a.m.

The NTSB is also looking into the 23 “trouble tickets” about problems concerning the bridge that were reported this year, alone. Nine took place between October 27 and November 29, said the AP; two involved signal or alignment issues, others involved minor problems such as debris and burned out lights.

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