New Jersey

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

Securing chemicals to prevent another Paulsboro accident

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One month ago, more than 200 homes in South Jersey were evacuated after a train carrying highly toxic and flammable chemicals derailed from a bridge into a creek near Paulsboro. Four rail cars that ended up in Mantua Creek contained vinyl chloride. One released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, which formed a cloud of toxic gas that drifted into the community.

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

The incident may seem isolated, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. What happened there could happen with devastating consequences across New Jersey — and across the United States.

There are 473 chemical facilities in America today that pose a danger to populations of 100,000 or more, and 89 plants that place a million or more people at risk of immediate injury or death from toxic chemical exposure.

The Paulsboro Refining Co.’s refinery uses hydrogen fluoride that puts up to
3.1 million people at risk. In South Kearny, the Kuehne chemical facility processes chlorine gas that risks the lives of nearly 12 million people, according to company reports to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Paulsboro was bad, but the true impacts may not be known for years or even generations. Vinyl chloride is a dangerous, highly flammable chemical that, according to the EPA, causes liver damage and is known to cause cancer in humans. It took more than two weeks to remove the railcars from the creek, a tributary of the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for 15 million people.

More than 70 people were hospitalized after the vinyl chloride release. Monitoring found very high levels in the community. Hundreds were eventually evacuated and others were told to shelter-in-place. Fortunately, no one was killed.

This accident was far from the first in 2012. In October, a freight train carrying butadiene derailed just outside of Louisville, Ky. The collision resulted in an explosion and fire that hurt five workers and forced evacuations. How much worse would this have been if the train were passing through densely populated Louisville?

There’s more. In June and July, two derailments in the Midwest led to explosions and evacuations. In January, three trains collided in Indiana. And in one of the worst rail accidents in recent history, nine people died and 250 more were treated for chlorine exposure after 60 tons of the toxic gas were released in a 2005 train accident in Graniteville, S.C.

In the wake of the Paulsboro accident, some are calling for stricter train safety standards, though new standards won’t solve the underlying problem. What we need is to do something about the massive amounts of hazardous chemicals we transport by rail and store in facilities that put the health of thousands of workers and communities at risk. We know safer chemicals and options exist; the industry should use them rather than ship thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals across the country.

Aware of the dangers posed by these plants since 9/11, Congress drafted bills to secure chemical facilities and limit the storage and use of deadly toxins at the plants. After the attacks in New York, it became clear that the vulnerability of chemical facilities posed grave threats to national security. In Washington, officials ended the storage of potentially deadly toxins at the largest wastewater plant in the region just 90 days after 9/11, fearing the plant was a security risk. This move eliminated risks to more than a million people, including anyone on Capitol Hill.

And then a curious thing happened: As the chemical industry pressured representatives to delay the safeguards, President George W. Bush blocked promising rules by the EPA to prevent such a disaster at our highest-risk chemical plants. And now, a decade later, these plants still pose a threat.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The EPA has the power to use its existing authority under the Clean Air Act to safeguard chemical plants and reduce the use of deadly chemicals, including vinyl chloride, at these sites. It won’t be easy, but action to begin securing dangerous chemicals would protect the health and lives of millions, including at-risk New Jerseyans.

Republicans and Democrats were united in their desire to protect families from accidents and acts of terror targeting chemical plants post-9/11. It’s time to unite again, for Paulsboro and the many other communities affected by toxic chemicals.

We have known about this danger for too long. We have seen too many near misses for the Obama administration, which has expressed support for these policies, to continue to delay. This action as one of outgoing EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson’s final acts could cement her legacy, in New Jersey and nationwide. This is not just an environmental issue. It’s an issue of worker and public safety, and national security. How many more accidents do we need before we acknowledge the risks the storage and transport of these chemicals pose?

The time to act is now, before the next toxic spill takes place in Trenton, New York City, Philadelphia or any of the other hundreds of cities and towns that are one accident or act of sabotage away from disaster. We must act now, to prevent another Paulsboro.

Mike Schade is markets campaign coordinator with the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

** This op-ed originally appeared in the NJ Star Ledger on Sunday December 30, 2012:
http://blog.nj.com/njv_guest_blog/2012/12/securing_chemicals_to_prevent.html

Photo by Rae Lynn Stevenson

Paulsboro Train Accident Reveals Dangers Posed by Chemical Transportation and Production to Communities and Workers

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Trains leaking toxic vinyl chloride into air and water. Vinyl chloride is used to manufacture PVC/vinyl plastic. Photo: Rae Lynn Stevenson/South Jersey Times


(Paulsboro, NJ) As over 200 homes continue to be evacuated due to the vinyl chloride train disaster, environmental and labor organizations called on the Obama Administration to use its power under the Clean Air Act to require chemical manufacturers to use safer available chemical processes and eliminate chemical disaster risks.   Groups also highlighted how the production and transportation of the carcinogen vinyl chloride to manufacture vinyl plastic, poses health hazards to communities and workers.

“This is the second major derailment of ultra-hazardous rail cars since the October 29th derailment near Louisville, KY,” said Rick Hind, Legislative Director of Greenpeace. “It was only a matter of luck that no one was killed in either of these accidents but people  were forced to seek medical treatment. Luck is not an acceptable policy when thousands of lives are at stake. Today there are safer available processes that should be required so that poison gases are no longer shipped through our communities. The graffiti on thousands of rail cars is proof that no one can protect them from mischief or a terrorist, and accidents are all too common. The Obama administration has championed this issue in Congress but also has the authority to require the use of safer processes. Once safer chemical processes are in use, rail car derailments will no longer pose a threat to entire cities.”

“Vinyl chloride is an extremely toxic chemical that causes cancer according to the EPA,” said Mike Schade, Campaign Coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ). “Friday’s train accident sent a toxic plume of this dangerous plastics chemical into people’s homes, sending dozens of residents and workers to the hospital, and leading many more to shelter in place and evacuate.  This is not the first time vinyl chloride has sickened communities.  Earlier this year a vinyl plastics plant in Louisiana exploded, sending a plume of toxic pollution downwind.  Safer alternatives are available, and that’s why leading businesses such as Apple, Google, Johnson & Johnson and Nike have committed to phasing it out.  This unfortunate accident highlights how vinyl is the most toxic plastic for children’s health and the environment.”

“The final destination of the railcars has not been reported, but we do know thousands of railcars of toxic chemicals traverse the country each day,” said Denise Patel, Project Coordinator for NJ Work Environment Council. “We also know that many of these chemicals can be produced on site in smaller quantities to avoid transporting them. New Jersey requires all plants using large quantities of highly hazardous chemicals to review options for safer alternatives. Since adopting the requirement under NJ’s Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act in 2005, 41 of New Jersey’s 85 most dangerous facilities, including oil refineries and chemical plants, have taken steps to reduce inventories of toxic chemicals, installed new equipment and processes to reduce the risk of accidents, and take other measures to make plants safer for workers and communities.  The EPA should use its authority under the Clean Air Act to do the same. The idea has garnered support from over 100 labor and environmental organizations, and former NJ Governor Christie Whitman.  In light of this disaster, we urge the Obama Administration to act quickly.”

Resources for journalists:

August 2012 chemical disaster prevention op-ed by former NJ Gov. Christine Todd Whitman in The New York Times:
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/30/opinion/the-epa-can-fix-the-chemical-flaw.html?_r=0

July 2012 chemical disaster prevention petition to the EPA from 50+ organizations:
https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/404584-petition-to-epa-to-prevent-chem-disasters-filed.html

May 2012 Coalition letter to president Obama from 100+ organizations calling for chemical disaster prevention policy:
https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/357316-coalition-letter-obama-chemical-disaster.html

March 2012 National Environmental Justice Advisory Council letter to

the EPA: http://www.documentcloud.org/documents/332041-nejac-letter.html

Interactive Google mapping program to finding a high risk chemical facility anywhere in the U.S.:
http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/campaigns/toxics/

Background on the dangers of vinyl: www.chej.org/campaigns/pvc

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frackwater

NJ State Passes Fracking Waste Ban

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The New Jersey State Senate passed legislation to ban the processing and treatment of waste from hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Environment New Jersey and allies built support for the Senate bill (S253) after passage in the Assembly. The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Bob Gordon (D-38) and Sen. Jen Beck (R-12), passed by a bipartisan landslide margin of 30-5, and gained momentum with the disclosure that fracking waste was already being shipped to New Jersey. Read more . . .