100 more Paulsboro homes evacuated

Posted: December 06, 2012

Authorities evacuated about 100 more homes in Paulsboro on Tuesday in response to elevated levels of vinyl chloride in the area surrounding Friday's train derailment, which already had sent about 400 residents to seek shelter elsewhere.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.), whose district includes Paulsboro, called for a reform of regulations involving inspections of privately owned rail bridges such as the one over the Mantua Creek that failed. Andrews also expressed frustration at the pace of the cleanup.

The expanded evacuation, effective at 4 p.m., was intended to provide relief to those in the rest of the borough, who would no longer be subject to a "shelter-in-place" order requiring them to remain behind closed doors and windows.

"We didn't anticipate this, that we would [go] all of last night" still seeing elevated levels, Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore, whose agency is leading the disaster response, said at a news conference.

The amount of vinyl chloride in the air in the evacuation zone remained at troubling, but not life-threatening, levels, Moore said.

Conrail, which owns and operates the bridge where the train derailed, had secured 100 more hotel rooms to accommodate the new evacuees, said Rob Fender, director of claims for the company, a subsidiary of CSX Corp. and Norfolk Southern Corp. It already was providing displaced residents lodging and vouchers for food, gas, and other items.

The evacuation area now extends south from Monroe Street to Broad Street and east from Spruce Street to the creek.

The Coast Guard said Tuesday that residents would not be allowed to return home until Sunday, a day longer than last stated. It hopes to finish removing the vinyl chloride in the breached tanker car that day, Moore said. Responders then will begin trying to remove the derailed car from the creek.

Municipal Court and public schools will remain closed throughout the evacuation, officials said.

Andrews, in calling for stronger federal safety regulation of privately owned rail bridges, said the inspection of the such bridges should not be left to their owners. He said he would seek to change the law to require independent inspections by a federal authority, such as the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

"Self-reporting isn't working here," said Andrews, speaking in a conference call. "We need to have a federal authority inspect these bridges and not just take their word for it."

Because the bridge that failed is privately owned and maintained, its inspection records are not open to the public. The owners of the nation's 77,000 freight rail bridges are required to inspect the spans at least once a year, but they need not disclose the results.

The Federal Railroad Administration does not regulate rail bridge structural safety, though it monitors rail companies' inspection programs.

The "normal pressures in any business" might prevent owners from making needed repairs without independent inspections, Andrews said.

He also criticized the decision by a Conrail dispatcher in Mount Laurel to permit the train that derailed to operate through a red signal.

"What's the value of the red-light warning system if people are going to ignore it?" Andrews asked.

The train's engineer asked for permission to cross the bridge after he was unable to get a green signal by keying in a code on an electronic pad similar to a garage-door opener. The train's conductor had walked the bridge and reported that it looked secure.

The swing bridge had an intricate locking mechanism to align the tracks with those on shore and to secure the bridge to its abutment. All four locks had to be in place for sensors to trigger a green signal.

A dispatcher may authorize an engineer to operate through a red signal in some circumstances, said Kevin Thompson, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration. The most common reasons are a track circuit malfunction or a signal malfunction, he said.

Andrews also criticized the pace of the cleanup.

"This is too slow," he said. "This can be done safely, but more quickly."

Moore said the job was too delicate to be rushed.

"It's a very dangerous operation to work," she said.

"Would I have hoped that we would be further along by now? Absolutely. . . . We're moving as swiftly as we can considering the very complicated" situation.

As Paulsboro waits out the evacuation, some have found an excuse to play. Greenwich Township police arrested 22 people Monday who were partying in the room of a displaced resident at the Motel 6 in Gibbstown.

The evacuee was not arrested or in the room when police arrived and found marijuana and crack cocaine, Police Chief Joseph Giordano said. Neither Giordano nor Conrail, which is paying for 14 rooms at the motel, knew if any of those rounded up were evacuees.

All 22 people have been charged with disorderly conduct, and some may face charges of narcotics possession and supplying alcohol to minors.

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Contact Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com .

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