By Michael Hill
This sun rising over Paulsboro would make for a great postcard, except Raelynn Stevenson’s camera captured the calamity of the Conrail train derailment here on Nov. 30, 2012. The cloud is the cancer-causing gas vinyl chloride — an ingredient in so many products we use — leaking from one of four freight cars that tumbled in to the creek just feet away from the Stevenson’s house.
“There was some problems right in the beginning, concerning what was coming out of the cars,” Public Safety Director Gary Stevenson said.
Stevenson was the deputy fire chief then. Stevenson and other emergency workers jumped in to action without wearing any protective gear.
“If I had known it was vinyl chloride right off the bat, I would have went to my computer, to my guidebook and read exactly what it was. But, when your adrenaline… and I first came out as a homeowner and I was sizing up those things. And I know Hazmat so I started giving orders right away. Yeah, probably should have went to the guide book right away, went to the computer right away and we should have been back further right away in that incident command system. But, you’re dealing with things that you have to deal with split-second timing. You have to put yourself out there sometimes so that the rest of the people in town could be saved or safer,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said if Conrail had told first responders sooner than it did about the vinyl chloride “it could have assisted in executing a safe response.”
A Conrail spokesman says the railroad “takes seriously the board’s many findings and recommendations” and awaits the final report and “will implement all appropriate measures.”
The NTSB also said “personnel exposure to vinyl chloride would have been minimized had the incident commander followed guidance” established in the industry and by federal regulations.
“If there’s such a good thing that came out of this whole disaster, is we now train by Conrail better. They take us to courses. They send us away to learn more, the first responders. We didn’t have that before,” Stevenson said.
Right now, crews prepare the site of the derailment to install a lift bridge — one to replace the swing bridge built around 1873.
Deputy Assembly Speaker John Burzichelli says that’s one of many steps Conrail and federal regulators should take.
“These are for-profit companies making a lot of money and they are self regulated. So the federal railroad administration in my mind needs to do more to make certain that these companies are regulating themselves in a way that protects public safety and requiring them to re-invest in infrastructure,” Burzichelli said.
The EPA puts vinyl chloride in the same cancer-causing category as secondhand smoke, meaning the long-term potential impact may not show up for years.
“I did have the highest vinyl chloride readings in my system. I don’t know what’s going to happen long-term. But I go every few months and all my tests, I’m fine,” Stevenson said.
“We’ve had many people during my time of working at the hospital, many people who never smoked but slightly were exposed to secondhand smoke and ended up with lung cancer. So, it’s the unknown the scares me,” said nurse Irma Stevenson.
“In one of my dizzy spells, I fell and cracked my knee cap,” said Harry Zimmer.
Zimmer lives within a mile of the derailment. He still smokes but says the toxic gas spill made his lung disease worse.
“It got a lost worse. It got a lot worse. I had to start an inhaler. I could always lay flat. Now I have to have three pillows under my head,” he said. When asked if he thinks it’s related to the derailment, Zimmer said, “I believe, for it to accelerate that quick.”
Cedar Law Firm of Cherry Hill has sued Conrail on behalf of Zimmer and dozens of families, blaming a long list of ailments on the spill.
In its answer to the lawsuits, Conrail “denies that this release caused harm to persons or property in the area” and it “denies anyone was exposed to vinyl chloride at levels” that would cause cancer or any of the symptoms residents have complained about.
Conrail says “it demands strict proof” at trial.
In the meantime, a Conrail help center remains available by appointment in Paulsboro for those impacted to file and settle claims.