NTSB finds safety, training issues in Paulsboro spill

Work crews prepared to hoist the derailed tanker cars from the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro on Dec. 12.
Work crews prepared to hoist the derailed tanker cars from the Mantua Creek in Paulsboro on Dec. 12. (ED HILLE / Staff photographer)
Posted: July 11, 2013

WASHINGTON - Federal investigators on Tuesday questioned Paulsboro first responders and Conrail officials on why they failed to use protective emergency equipment during last November's train derailment and also expressed skepticism over whether they had received adequate training to handle such an accident.

Four tank cars tumbled into Mantua Creek after a movable bridge failed about 7 a.m. Nov 30. One car breached, releasing about 20,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere and eventually forcing nearly 700 people from their homes.

Even though air monitoring data showed dangerous levels of the chemical near the derailment, police and firefighters did not wear protective respiratory devices or initially communicate the severity of the spill to the public, investigators said.

"Shame on us. We really didn't prepare for that incident," Paulsboro Fire Chief Alfonso G. Giampola said Tuesday at a National Transportation Safety Board investigative hearing.

He later added, "I don't know if it's accurate that the incident went well. But in the big picture, we did not attend any funerals."

The hearing provided a glimpse into the events that immediately followed the derailment, as the train crew involved spoke publicly for the first time since then.

The conductor and engineer of the train told NTSB investigators that they believed the movable bridge had locked properly before the derailment.

They recalled coming to a red signal at the swing bridge, indicating that they should not proceed. The conductor, Wilbert den Ouden, inspected the bridge.

"The bridge is closed. But it's locked," he recalled. A dispatcher then instructed him that the bridge was safe to pass.

"Two engines go by the bridge," recalled Mark Mather, the Conrail engineer who was on the train with the conductor. "There wasn't a ripple."

Five more cars passed, he said, and the train "went into an emergency."

"In my side view mirror, I can see the A-frame portion of the bridge fall over like a tree," Mather said.

Then he saw a fog cloud billowing over the creek. "So I say, 'Oh, my God, the bridge has collapsed.' "

NTSB vice chairman Christopher Hart said the purpose of Tuesday's hearing was to determine what information was available to emergency responders about the train's cargo and what actions were taken to protect them and residents from the vinyl chloride.

Hart said initial communications after the derailment "were inconsistent and at times referred to the release as nontoxic."

Even as the fire department knew the breached car had released a known carcinogen, the police department reported that the material was nontoxic, investigators said.

At least 15 lawsuits have been filed against Conrail, which owned and operated the bridge, and other parties linked to the train or its cargo. Most seek damages for economic losses or medical monitoring for potential health problems.

Officials have determined that the bridge had not operated as it was supposed to after an earlier train had crossed it and that it was not closed properly when the train that derailed obtained permission to run against a red signal.

In opening the hearings, the NTSB released nearly 6,500 pages of investigative documents.

One report painted a picture of a bridge that had numerous problems in the days and hours before the derailment, particularly after Hurricane Sandy had hit a month earlier.

"Was there any consideration of upgrading the protective procedures to respond to this uncertainty that had gotten worse since the hurricane?" Hart asked.

Tim Tierney, vice president and chief engineer for Conrail, responded that some reports were associated with the storm, but others appeared to stem from a different, recurring problem.

Investigators have said that work crews reported 24 "trouble tickets" on the Paulsboro bridge in the year preceding the derailment. On Tuesday, the NTSB said about half of those problems were reported in the month leading up to the Nov. 30 derailment.

Mather, the Conrail engineer, said he had come across red signals "dozens of times" in the 14 months he had worked for the rail company.

He said the number of problems the Paulsboro bridge experienced during that time was "far greater" than the 24 official reports.

And in the three months before the derailment, Mather said, he received several messages indicating the bridge "failed to operate."

Investigators also questioned whether Conrail had provided workers with adequate training to be able to inspect a bridge properly in the event of a red light.

Den Ouden, the conductor, had inspected only one bridge - during on-the-job training in 2009 - before the Paulsboro incident.

The hearings will continue Wednesday with testimony about state and federal emergency response.

Contact Andrew Seidman at 856-779-3846, aseidman@phillynews.com, or follow @AndrewSeidman on Twitter.

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