A derailed freight train that leaked potentially hazardous chemical vapors into the air Friday morning in Paulsboro has been stabilized as authorities determine the best way to upright three train cars that toppled into Mantua Creek.
County and state officials said at a news conference Friday afternoon that there did not appear to be any imminent danger from the vinyl chloride that leaked from one of the derailed cars.
A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said the agency will continue to monitor air quality in the area.
Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert M. Damminger said there was no need for mass evacuations from the area, but officials encouraged residents of Paulsboro, East Greenwich and West Deptford to pay attention to the county’s alert system for updates on the situation.
Twenty-eight people were treated for respiratory trouble Friday at Underwood Memorial Hospital in Woodbury; most had sore throats. None of them appeared to have critical health issues related to the chemical vapors, said Damminger, a West Deptford resident.
Representatives from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were on their way to Paulsboro, an industrial town along the Delaware River, on Friday afternoon to begin an investigation into the derailment.
'A several-day operation'
Tom Butts, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said one possible scenario is having a large crane towed by barge from New York Harbor to upright the derailed train cars.
“This is going to be a several-day operation,” he said.
The derailment caused a split in the container car carrying about 180,000 pounds of vinyl chloride. Some of the chemical leaked into the air. The remainder is frozen inside the container, and will be flushed out using a fire hose, Butts said.
Conrail owns the bridge, and the train was operated by CSX. The train consisted of two engines, 82 rail cars and one caboose, It was traveling from Camden to Paulsboro, and derailed around 7 a.m. Friday.
The A-frame bridge along North Commerce Street in Paulsboro underwent major repairs two years ago, after a prior incident in which 16 coal cars derailed from it in 2009, officials said.
State Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, a West Deptford resident, said neighbors recently reported hearing “noises” coming from the bridge, and that Conrail had been “looking at” the bridge over the past few weeks.
It’s too soon to say whether structural problems in the bridge caused the latest mishap, Sweeney said outside the borough fire hall, where he joined local and state officials at an afternoon press conference.
“I don’t like to point fingers until you get answers,” he said.
'First concern is public safety'
Conrail spokesman John Enright read a brief statement at the press conference, but did not take questions from reporters. He said Conrail is conducting a full investigation into the derailment, and that the company would offer assistance to anyone who had to seek medical treatment because of the chemical vapors.
"We very much regret the impact on the community,” Enright said in his statement. “Conrail’s first concern is public safety.”
Much of West Deptford was ultimately unaffected by the derailment. The township Office of Emergency Management penned letters, hand-delivered by the fire company, to residents in White Swan and White Swan East notifying them of the incident and advising them to remain indoors Friday.
"As of right now we are told that there are no harmful fumes coming into our township," police Chief Craig Mangano noted Friday. "We will continue to monitor the situation. If any circumstances are to change, we will notify the residents and take appropriate action."
In a statement, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said he is working with the NTSB and other federal agencies to investigate the incident.
“Safety is the highest priority along our railways, and this incident requires a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident and any impact on the environment in the surrounding areas,” said Lautenberg, chair of the Commerce Surface Transportation Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over rail safety. “Railways are essential to New Jersey's economy and we must further investigate this incident to make sure they are operated as safely as possible when they pass through our communities.”
In August, Senator Lautenberg joined with Senators John D. (Jay) Rockefeller IV (D-WV), chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, and Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) in requesting a Government Accountability (GAO) review of rail safety nationwide. The senators requested that GAO investigate how the Federal Railroad Administration, state rail safety agencies, and other stakeholders cooperate to ensure the safety of people and goods.
The train derailment site is less than 3 miles from Philadelphia International Airport, where President Obama landed Friday morning en route to visit to Hatfield, PA. The Paulsboro incident did not alter the president's visit or landing, nor were other flights at the airport affected.
In the shadow of heavy industry, calamity is always a possibility, said state Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor.
“When you live between two oil refineries, you have a sense these things can happen,” he said of the derailment.
Shannon Sadler contributed to this report.
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