Trenton —The public health response to a major toxic chemical spill from a train derailment was badly mishandled and should be scrutinized by federal authorities, according to a complaint filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The group cites contradictory public health advisories, false information disseminated to the community, lack of a workable emergency response plan and the dominant role played by a corporate consulting firm with a checkered past, among other problems.
In the early morning of November 30, 2012, Conrail freight cars carrying chemicals overturned on a bridge crossing the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro, New Jersey, very close to the Philadelphia International Airport. Three cars fell into the creek. One of the tank cars released approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air as vapor. Vinyl chloride, a colorless gas with a sweet odor, is an industrial chemical known to be highly toxic and carcinogenic. Exposure to very high levels can result in death.
In the hours and days following the spill, a mix of federal and state agencies issued conflicting, confusing and sometimes outright inaccurate information to affected residents. PEER is calling for a review of –
- Directives that residents “shelter-in-place” rather than evacuate. Sheltering in place would be demonstrably ineffective in the face of an airborne plume. Approximately a score of people were hospitalized and as many as 500 were eventually evacuated;
- Assurances from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that the air was safe when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitoring found vinyl chloride at “periodic exceedances of the level of concern” in the first days after the spill; and
- Confusion at the spill site as to what the level of danger was, whether protective gear was required and who needed to be evacuated.
“The governmental response to the Paulsboro spill was a chaotic mess,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former long-time DEP analyst, noting that state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, whose district encompasses the spill site, gave the joint command center an “F” for its miscommunications. “We need a high level review of this incident response so that the public will be better protected from the next toxic spill – which is only a matter of when not if.”
The incident joint command consists of an amalgam of entities, led by the U.S. Coast Guard and including the state DEP, local authorities, as well as Conrail and its consultant. In fact, public health information was assigned to the corporate consultant, The Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health (CTEH), an entity which has been embroiled in a string of environmental disasters from Hurricane Katrina, to the BP Gulf spill, the 2008 coal sludge implosion in Tennessee, Chinese drywall and more.
“The last thing we should outsource is emergency public health responsibilities,” added Wolfe who today asked the Inspector General for both EPA and the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, to dissect incident response. “Including responsible parties and their agents within incident command creates the risk that reducing corporate liability will compete with protecting the public.”
This week the National Transportation Safety Board is expected to release its investigation into the causes of the train derailment. That report will not, however, address the adequacy of spill response.
See Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) vinyl chloride fact sheet
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability