train accident

Train Derailment in NJ: More of the Same – No Cause for Alarm

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Paulsboro train derailment.



How many times have we heard the same refrain from government leaders and scientists involved in community wide exposures such as the recent train derailment in Paulsboro, NJ that released 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air? “There’s no cause for alarm, we have everything under control.”

If only this were true. Instead, many of the hundreds of people in the 27 block area that was evacuated remain frustrated by the lack of answers to their questions about health effects and accountability. This frustration is driven by how government leaders and scientists evaluate health risks and by the many uncertainties about what is known about the short and long term health effects of being exposed to vinyl chloride or other chemicals. Scientists can estimate risks and give their opinions, but we simply don’t know what’s going to happen to the health of the people who were exposed to vinyl chloride in the aftermath of this accident. Yet this is exactly what people want to know – what’s going to happen to their health or to the health of their children as a result of this accident?

Here’s what we do know. We know that vinyl chloride is a human carcinogen and that it damages the liver and central nervous system; that more than 200 families within a half mile of the accident site were evacuated; that the Coast Guard and other authorities acted swiftly in evacuating the homes immediately surrounding the site of the accident; that the train pulling 84 cars derailed on a bridge over Mantua Creek; that seven rail cars derailed; 4 contained vinyl chloride; one ethanol; three fell into the creek; and one ruptured releasing vinyl chloride into the air (see photo).  We also know that 10 days later most people are back in their homes with assurances from the local authorities that everything is fine.

This is not surprising because it’s the practical thing to do. But what was the scientific basis for this decision? Air samples taken by EPA on December 8th and 9th from throughout the surrounding neighborhood found vinyl chloride in every sample taken. Eight of the nine samples exceeded the EPA’s one-in-a million cancer risk value (EPA’s trigger level for action). Yet people are back in their homes. EPA’s interpretation of this data is that is that the results are within the agency’s “acceptable” risk range, which varies by a factor of 1,000. This is a ridiculously large risk range that has no meaning in protecting public health.

So the stalemate is set up between government leaders and scientists telling people that everything is fine and a frustrated community that has no answers. Given this dynamic, it’s not surprising that 54 residents filed suit this week against Conrail and CSX for damages. What they want is medical screening for early detection of life threatening medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. This is actually a reasonable response to the many uncertainties that exist in the scientific understanding of what will happen to the health of the people exposed to toxic chemicals such as vinyl chloride.

Had the government leaders and scientists in Paulsboro recognized the scientific uncertainties and more honestly acknowledged how little is known about chemical exposures and health outcomes, there may have been a more satisfying resolution. A resolution that might have included practical steps forward such as medical screening for early detection of medical conditions linked to vinyl chloride. Testing that should be paid for by the companies responsible for the accident and who own the chemicals.

As long as decision makers continue to protect the companies responsible for area-wide chemical exposures such as what occurred in Paulsboro, this scenario will continue to play out as it has since the days of Love Canal more than 30 years ago. Isn’t it time we publicly acknowledge what we don’t know about exposures to toxic chemicals and stop deluding ourselves that using risk estimates that define “acceptable” exposures is the best way to manage toxic chemicals? There is no acceptable exposure if you‘re the one being exposed.

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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