By David Cruz
Shelter in place. The order sounds pretty benign, and officials say it’s the quickest and most efficient way to keep residents safe as crews continue to clean up the toxic chemical spill caused by the train derailment in Paulsboro. Bill Wolfe is a former planner and policy analyst for the state Department of Environmental Protection. He edits a website now that calls attention to environmental issues. He says shelter in place does little but give a false sense of security.
“Shelter in place is what I grew up in as ‘duck and cover.’ The idea that you could somehow shelter in place and be safe from these risks is ludicrous on its face,” Wolfe said.
Residents in the small community of about 6,000 were under another shelter in place order today, but still going about their business, mostly oblivious to the work going on at the bridge beyond barriers, and the dangers of the industrial sites that the bridge serves.
Paulsboro Resident Bridgette Munn said she doesn’t know what the trains were carrying. “We just know that they come through frequently. We don’t know what they’re carrying,” she said.
These facilities are part of a chemical industrial complex that stretches for about 20 miles along the banks of the Delaware River. Paulsboro is a community that’s pretty much in the middle of that. We were at Paulsboro High School, about a football field away from those facilities.
“The industry has created maps showing where there is called a ‘kill zone’ where in the event of an accident like this, had that been a chlorine tank, literally hundreds or thousands of people could have been killed, instantly,” Wolfe said.
So, who’s responsible for safety regulations? In this case, Conrail runs the track and the bridge. That organization is regulated by the federal government. Assemblyman John Burzichelli — a former Paulsboro mayor who now represents the borough in the state legislature — says local regulators are out of the loop when it comes to overseeing the transport of dangerous materials.
Burzichelli says a combination of organizations regulate chemical plants in towns like Paulsboro and surrounding communities. “Air standards are federal and state DEP and the Department of Environmental Protection, of course, has a bigger role, at the plants that are based here,” he said.
But Wolfe says the Christie administration, along with Burzichelli, have been moving toward allowing local chemical plants to follow the less stringent federal standards.
“He has introduced legislation to weaken two things, both the federal — to make state standards weaker to be consistent with their weaker minimum federal requirements. He’s got a bill in on that. He’s got another bill in that would limit and weaken the DEP’s ability to enforce the laws,” Wolfe said.
Burzichelli says the federal government standards are stringent enough to keep companies in line, but that the main issue here is the bridge and what should be done to safeguard against another derailment.
“It seemed that we were better when there was someone there, as opposed to pushing a button and deciding whether it was ready to go over,” Burzichelli said.
There was a public meeting scheduled at the high school tonight, but it was canceled. The reason? Shelter in place. That’s life right now around here, where it’s too dangerous for a public meeting but not dangerous enough to fully evacuate.