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Chemical leak sickens dozens after New Jersey rail accident

By McClatchy Newspapers
AP Photo
Several cars lay in the water after a freight train derailed in Paulsboro, N.J., Friday, Nov. 30, 2012. People in three southern New Jersey towns were told Friday to stay inside after the freight train derailed and several tanker cars carrying hazardous materials toppled from a bridge and into a creek.

By Frank Kummer, Peter Mucha and Joseph Gambardello

PAULSBORO, N.J. -- A freight train derailed early Friday morning in Paulsboro, N.J., causing hazardous vinyl chloride to leak into the air and nearby waterways.

Sixty-six people were taken, or went on their own, to Underwood-Memorial Hospital in Woodbury, said a hospital spokesman. All were stable.

Evacuations were ordered for about a half-mile from the accident scene. Others were told to "shelter in place," according to a Red Cross spokesman. Three schools were put in lockdown. And some roads were closed, including off-ramps from I-295, according to reports.

But by 10:30 a.m. EST, the biggest health and environmental threats were largely over, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection. Roads had also reopened.

No fatalities were reported, according to a Coast Guard spokeswoman.

About 7:15 a.m., a train with 86 cars was heading to a facility in Logan Township and crossed a railroad bridge over Mantua Creek. Three tanker cars fell into the water, derailing a couple of other cars, possibly because of a bridge collapse.

One tanker car leaked, completely emptying its contents into the air and creek, which runs into the nearby Delaware River, said Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

By about 10:30 a.m., the chemical's sweet, sickly odor -- and its hazards to health -- had greatly dissipated, Hajna said.

Vinyl chloride evaporates quickly, and when mixed with water, becomes basically inert, said Ragonese.

He called the remaining hazards "minimal," as long as no further leakage occurs during the removal of the derailed cars. Containment booms were set up in the river just as a precaution.

Conrail plans to bring in a barge with a crane to lift the toppled train cars, in what will probably be a two-day operation, said Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli.

The initial hazards were very real, as an estimated 184,000 pounds of the chemical were released as a gas.

Immediately after the accident, more than a dozen people at a local marine terminal reportedly had breathing problems, necessitating medical treatment, according to reports.

Of the 66 who went to Underwood-Memorial Hospital for evaluation, 11 came from the derailment scene via ambulance. Five of them, described as workers near the accident, were being discharged.

Fifty-five of those at the hospital were "walk-ins" from the surrounding area, some of them children.

Short-term exposure to the hazardous, flammable gas, which has a sickly, sweet smell, can cause dizziness, drowsiness and headaches, according to the EPA. Long-term exposure, supposedly not an issue in this case, has been linked to cancer.

Paulsboro schools went into lockdown, said Lisa Phillips, administrative assistant for Paulsboro High School, which is just a quarter-mile from the accident scene. She could see "a lot of smoke" and police cars, and staff was detecting a "sweet smell," but no one was having breathing problems, she said.

"Our students are fine. Staff is fine," she said about 8:15 a.m.

All the high school's students were being kept in the cafeteria as staff awaited further instructions from authorities. Billingsport Elementary, also close to the accident scene, and Loudenslager Elementary were also in lockdown.

Emergency crews were being staged at the Gloucester County Fire Academy in neighboring Clarksboro.

A decontamination unit was placed at the scene of the collapsed Conrail bridge near East Jefferson Street, Gloucester County Freeholder Director Robert Damminger said in a statement.

The Gloucester County HazMat Team and HazMat Team from PRC Refinery were metering and monitoring the site.

The same bridge had been repaired in 2009, said Conrail spokesman John Enright.

Residents had complained recently about hearing noises from the bridge, and Conrail had supposedly investigated, according to Steve Sweeney, state Senate president, whose district includes Paulsboro.

Sweeney said one resident of the house closest to the bridge heard "a loud bang" two nights ago "he actually went out to see if a train had derailed but saw no train there," Sweeney noted.

Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this report.


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