In Paulsboro, a blue-collar town wrestles with industry

High schoolers in Paulsboro spend time with billowing smokestacks when they hit the football field.
High schoolers in Paulsboro spend time with billowing smokestacks when they hit the football field.
Posted: March 20, 2013

THE TIDE WAS going out in Paulsboro, and from Gary Stevenson's kitchen table a few geese could be seen hugging the bank of Mantua Creek, just beyond the inky eddies swirling out toward the Delaware River.

Stevenson's spacious, new home about 20 yards from the creek, on land his family has owned for generations, might provide the best view in town. And when a distant rumble grows closer, when vibrations rise through your shoes and a hulking form appears just beyond the back deck, the scene viewed from the kitchen becomes a perfect picture of life in Paulsboro.

"I guess I don't even really notice it anymore," Stevenson, 53, said on a chilly March morning as a 200-ton locomotive engine rolled past the house. "We're so used to it."

Paulsboro, whose high school boasts the storied Red Raiders wrestling team, has grappled for years with odd odors on breezy days and the occasional rain of "clarified slurry oil" from the local refinery gunking up cars.

But the stakes rose in November, when a southbound Conrail train derailed into the creek near Stevenson's house and leaked 25,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride. The confusion that followed spurred a group of residents to question whether the companies behind the industry can keep the town safe, and they're urging neighbors to snap out of what they call a "company town" mentality.

"There's so many people who are complacent. They don't have any fight," says Davetta Howard, 59, a Chicago native who lives in Paulsboro. "Somebody needs to let them know this is not the norm."

A committee's petition

The gritty Gloucester County town of 6,000 residents, directly across the river from Philadelphia International Airport, is defined by the surrounding oil refineries and chemical plants, and by the railroad that carries tankers full of hazardous chemicals down the tracks nearly every day. The billowing smokestacks are a permanent backdrop to the high school football field.

Howard is a member of the Paulsboro Action Committee, a group seeking more information from the town on emergency-response procedures and more safeguards from the industry. A petition seeks training and safety tool-kits for residents to construct homemade shelters, crossing guards to help students navigate past the trains and air-monitoring systems "funded by the local industry." The group presented its concerns to Paulsboro's elected officials earlier this month.

Paulsboro Mayor W. Jeffery Hamilton, a lifelong resident, was impressed to see residents getting more involved, but said some of their concerns already are being addressed.

"Some of the things they want, we have right here in town," he said Monday. "There's a little shelter in place down at the high school and we've been urging people to sign up for the reverse 9-1-1," an information service through which residents who have submitted their phone numbers are contacted when an emergency arises. "With the reverse 9-1-1, they get information right away.

"I understand where they're coming from, though, and I will be reaching out to these chemical companies to communicate more."

Hamilton said that the issue is larger than Paulsboro, that many companies are serviced by the Conrail line both north and south of the borough. He said residents had grown accustomed to seeing trains and not knowing what they were transporting.

"The derailment, that vinyl chloride, it opened up everyone's eyes and the people want to know," he said. "People want to know what's coming through town."

But Stevenson, who is a councilman and an employee at a chemical facility, is unsure where the petition would go.

"I actually agree with some of the things. Will they [the chemical industry] pay for them? That's another question," he said.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, says Paulsboro is one of many old industrial towns along the Delaware River in New Jersey that get "dumped on" and often abandoned by industry. The Paulsboro Action Committee, he said, shouldn't have to ask for safety measures.

"It's the whole definition of environmental injustice, because it's the working class, the poor or old," he said of the situation in Paulsboro. "If that rail line ran through Haddonfield or Moorestown, you'd be hearing more about it."

Representatives from the Paulsboro Refining Co., which turns crude oil into gasoline, heating oil and jet fuel, did not return requests for comment. ExxonMobil, in a statement, said the company hasn't been contacted by the committee but said safety is a "core value" at the two facilities the company operates in the Paulsboro area.

Bill Wolfe, head of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said he doesn't think the companies or the state will install air monitors around town.

"They don't want to open that door, to go for fence-line air monitoring," said Wolfe, a former DEP employee. "That would open Pandora's box."

Neither state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, of neighboring West Deptford, nor Assemblyman John Burzichelli, a former Paulsboro mayor, returned requests for comment.

Elvin Montero, a spokesman for the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, had no comment on the petition, calling it a "local matter." He said all members of the chemistry council comply with "applicable local, state and federal standards and regulations, and in many cases exceed them."

A Conrail spokesman said the company "remains committed to working with the city of Paulsboro to address their concerns." But many residents have complained that Conrail failed to address concerns about the Mantua Creek swing bridge that was built in the late 1800s.

In 2009, the bridge, near Stevenson's house, buckled and a shipment of coal derailed. The National Transportation Safety Board raised alignment issues before the most recent derailment.

Stevenson said he even called Conrail on occasion, and lamented the era when a man was stationed on the creek, in a little wooden hut, to make sure the bridge was working properly.

"We were hearing noises before it happened," he said of the November derailment.

'It was so surreal'

On the morning of Nov. 30, the train engineer asked for special permission to cross the bridge because of a red light, which suggested that the bridge was not properly closed. Moments after the engineer was given permission to cross, seven freight-train cars derailed, right beside Stevenson's house on East Jefferson Street.

Some cars crashed into the creek with the bridge, while others rolled onto Stevenson's yard, shaking the foundations and rattling the windows.

When the coupling on one car tore into another, the toxic gas gushed out and crept across the water like a fog. Stevenson, an assistant fire chief in town, was the first person to tend to the catastrophe unfolding in his back yard.

"It was so surreal," he said, recalling the scene from his kitchen.

Stevenson realized pretty quickly that the derailment wasn't Paulsboro's worst-case scenario, because he was still alive. The ruptured car ultimately leaked 25,000 gallons of vinyl chloride, and it quickly enveloped Stevenson's house before moving into town as a cloud.

The highly flammable and colorless toxic chemical, with a slightly sweet odor, is used to make PVC plastics. Low exposure can cause throat irritation, headache and shortness of breath; higher levels of exposure can result in loss of consciousness, liver damage or death.

Stevenson may have been exposed to more vinyl chloride than anyone else in town, but he still had a sigh of relief when he read the chemical description on the side of the ruptured rail car.

"We were fortunate it was vinyl chloride," he said. "If it were hydrofluoric acid or ammonia or LPG gas, you and I wouldn't be here. I would have been vaporized."

But one lawsuit claims that vinyl chloride exposure was responsible for a local woman's death, and countless residents were hospitalized during and after the derailment.

Catherine Cruice, a member of the committee, said she took her husband to the hospital on Christmas Eve because of recurring headaches and breathing problems.

"The medical bills say 'vinyl chloride exposure,' " said Cruice. "We have a $6,000 bill."

Conrail has been issuing checks to compensate some residents, ranging from $500 to $2,500 - but accepting them means also agreeing not to sue. With more than 25 percent of Paulsboro's population living below the poverty line, committee founder Jim McGovern said, the lure of quick cash is hard for some people to turn down.

"They are taking advantage of people's economic plight," said McGovern, in the living room of his home on DuPont Avenue.

Center City lawyer Mark Cuker, who has filed a lawsuit on behalf of about 600 Paulsboro residents, called Conrail's actions "a disgrace," saying that no one knows the long-term effects of vinyl-chloride exposure.

"They sign away their rights for life, and their rights for their kids, by taking these checks," Cuker said.

A Paulsboro lifer

Paulsboro takes pride in being tougher, albeit a little poorer, than surrounding towns. Like its beloved wrestlers, residents like to think they can't be kept down by anyone.

But the stream of images from the derailment, the talks of toxic air and burning eyes, made headlines across the country, and some wonder whether Paulsboro will ever prosper.

"The town already had a bad name," said Doug Ricotta, a bakery owner. "And now this."

Stevenson may need a new foundation for his $500,000 home, but he's a lifer.

"I could never sell, even if I wanted to," he said, eyeing the fresh cracks running up his walls, past pictures of his children. "It would be impossible."

He said his industrial neighbors aren't going away either.

"These tracks are here to stay," he said, looking out on the temporarily repaired bridge. "They are the lifeline to too many businesses. All of these companies are here to stay."

On Twitter: @JasonNark


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