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.
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: