Displaced Paulsboro residents must wait longer to return home after the Mantua Creek vinyl chloride leak, said Rep. Rob Andrews, who was briefed on the train derailment.
As a group of congressmen visited Gloucester County—without actually touring the train derailment site—two questions loomed large: When can the evacuated residents finally return home and who’s to blame for the derailment that sparked a hazmat emergency?
Neither question has a definitive answer.
Andrews (D-NJ), Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) and Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA) spoke together at a press conference following the briefing. They stayed away the derailment site to avoid delaying remediation efforts.
“There is significant, ongoing testing of the air quality throughout Paulsboro. As of this morning… there is no evidence of vinyl chloride in the air at this point. It’s something they’re watching very carefully on an ongoing basis,” Andrews said.
The congressman acknowledged that residents are anxious to return home. But, he said, emergency officials aren’t confident enough to allow that yet, and he declined to provide a firm timeline for the evacuation order to lift.
"When there's been a 24-hour period of zero readings (of vinyl chloride in the air) throughout the area, that is when the authorities feel they'll be able to make this decision to send people back," Andrews said.
Andrews also acknowledged residents are angry—about the incident in general, the delays in evacuating some areas of Paulsboro and the perceived lack of communication from officials about when residents can return home.
“I’m fully aware of the fact that the people of this community have heard too many false information and false deadlines,” Andrews said. “We are here to do what we can to make sure … that the area’s safe and people can get back home.”
Crews have a three-part plan in place to remove the threat of vinyl chloride, an industrial chemical used to make plastic that leaked into Mantua Creek after a Conrail swing bridge collapsed Nov. 30.
First, workers are removing vinyl chloride from a submerged train car by pumping acetone into the car. That neutralizes the vinyl chloride, but also makes it highly flammable.
“That process is well underway. Not complete but well underway,” Andrews said.
Second, crews must inspect the four other tanker cars carrying vinyl chloride to ensure there are no leaks.
“That conclusion hasn’t been definitely drawn as of this time… We were told this morning that all signs are positive that there was not a breach in any other of those four tanks. No one’s sure yet, but that work is continuing on,” Andrews noted.
Finally, a barge will remove all of the cars containing vinyl chloride.
“The barge that will be doing that has arrived on Mantua Creek as we speak. It’s waiting by the boon area to take those tanks when they’re ready,” Andrews said.
“We want this to be done safely and quickly in that order. We want people to return to their homes when we’re certain that it is safe. We want that certain(ty) to be based on valid, ongoing scientific testing, and once that testing shows that the air is clean to breathe, we want people to return home.”
Investigation underway, inspection process questioned
The congressmen noted that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and Coast Guard are well into their investigation into the derailment. Early conclusions from experts in the field place blame on a mix of human error, automated safety systems and an aging bridge, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
There are indications the train conductor went through a red signal after requesting permission to continue over the bridge.
“I think red lights mean stop and one of the main questions here is why there is ever a protocol in place where you see a red light and go forward,” Andrews said.
But the congressional delegation was quick to note that no agency has come to firm conclusions on the incident.
“The first concern is for the safety of the residents, for their well-being and for the ability to get them back to what can be called normal,” LoBiondo said. “There are extraordinary measures being taken to try to get to the bottom of this.”
Reporters questioned the congressmen about inspection protocols. Conrail owns the swing bridge and conducts private inspections that aren’t available to the public. The same bridge, which has parts dating back to the 1800s, was the site of another derailment in 2009.
“There’s been too much self-reporting and too much self-inspection,” Andrews said.
Legislation aimed at preventing a similar incident in the future could come, but the congressmen said they’ll wait for the investigations to conclude.
“We need the information first, we need to understand what the NTSB comes up with, what the Coast Guard comes up with,” LoBiondo said.
The train derailment site is a popular destination for politicians Thursday. New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno will visit the site with state cabinet officials. Gov. Chris Christie is in Washington, DC, today for meetings on Hurricane Sandy recovery.
Gloucester County established an online system for residents to ask questions about the derailment and vinyl chloride threat.