By Dari Kotzker
The National Transportation Safety Board heard a second day of testimony investigating the Nov. 30 Paulsboro train derailment and chemical release. Their goal? To gather information on the cause, response and lessons learned from the incident. The board questioned Paulsboro police and fire officials, and one resident was not happy with what he heard.
“I see that it was unorganized and the people that are in charge of the town didn’t really, weren’t prepared for what happened and it doesn’t look good,” Doug Ricotta said.
The panel discussed the decision to shelter-in-place, the eventual evacuation and why none of the mostly volunteer first responders or train personnel wore appropriate hazmat gear.
“I think it’s funny that how they can take the derailment and starting to put the blame on the first responders instead of Conrail’s default with bridge,” said Paulsboro resident John Haase.
“Some people have offered criticism that the hearings are too focused on the response side and not focused enough on the Conrail Railroad operation side. And I’m convinced that the heavy work involving the rails operation has been in large part concluded,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli.
A hazardous material committee member testified that between 70 and 80 percent of the country’s fire departments are volunteer and must rely on mutual aid for hazardous materials situations.
“We do lack the ability to be able to afford some of the protective equipment that is really needed to respond, so I would think on a state or federal level, more money should be made available to smaller departments,” Paulsboro Police Chief Chris Wachter said.
Conrail employees and state and federal agencies also testified.
“Conductors who were on the job had to physically get down and walk the bridge because we were getting conflicting signals. I looked into the side-view mirror and I could see the A frame portion of the bridge listing from side to side until it finally goes over like a tree,” said Conrail Locomotive Engineer Mark Mather.
Even as residents learn more about the derailment and response, it still doesn’t help ease their concerns about the 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride released into the air. Gay Johnson was evacuated 13 hours after the derailment.
“My concern is the main thing is that our children, a lot of the people don’t have medical insurance. What’s going to happen with them in the future? They need to be monitored to make sure, they claim it causes cancer,” Johnson said.
Federal, state and local lawmakers have said there needs to be better communication and more oversight to ensure rail safety.
The information gathered at the hearings will be a part of the National Transportation Safety Board’s final report, which also included probable cause of the accident and recommendations. It’ll be released the public in the next 12 to 18 months.