Andrews calls for independent oversight of railroads

U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews speaks during a news conference near the site of a derailment and chemical leak last year, with Paulsboro Mayor Jeffery Hamilton (left) and local rescue officials.
U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews speaks during a news conference near the site of a derailment and chemical leak last year, with Paulsboro Mayor Jeffery Hamilton (left) and local rescue officials. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 27, 2013

PAULSBORO U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews called Monday for more vigorous, independent oversight of railroads, nearly a year after a train derailment in Paulsboro caused the release of a toxic chemical and forced hundreds of people from their homes.

Standing in front of the bridge where the Conrail train derailed, Andrews (D., N.J.) said at a news conference that legislation he introduced last week would require that rail bridges be inspected by independent engineering firms at least once every two years.

The switching systems on bridges, such as the one in Paulsboro, would have to be inspected by similar firms at least once every six months, he said.

"The one industry in our country that is self-regulated is the freight rail industry. This needs to stop," said Andrews, whose congressional district includes Paulsboro. Inspections would be conducted "by a reputable, independent engineering firm - not a firm on the payroll of Conrail, not a firm on the payroll of any railroad," he said.

Andrews was joined Monday by Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a former mayor of Paulsboro; Mayor Jeffery Hamilton; and other local officials.

Conrail workers testified at National Transportation Safety Board hearings in July that as they approached the swing bridge at 7 a.m. Nov. 30, 2012, they came to a red signal, indicating that it was not safe to pass. The train's conductor inspected the bridge and determined that it had locked properly.

The train proceeded, and four tanker cars fell into Mantua Creek. One breached, releasing about 20,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere. The borough eventually evacuated about 700 residents, most of whom returned home within a week.

The NTSB has said that work crews reported 24 "trouble tickets" on the bridge in the year preceding the accident. The last crew to cross the bridge before the derailment reported that the bridge had not operated as it was supposed to.

Residents, first responders, and businesses have filed more than a dozen lawsuits accusing Conrail and its parent companies of negligence. Most of the suits seek punitive damages and medical monitoring.

This month, Conrail said it would replace the bridge. Construction of the new bridge is scheduled to be completed by September 2014, according to Conrail.

Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra declined to comment Monday. He referred questions to the Association of American Railroads, which declined to comment Monday evening.

A second piece of legislation Andrews introduced would require the federal government to designate a federal incident commander to delegate responsibilities in the aftermath of such accidents.

Andrews said the need for a clearer chain of command became evident after the derailment in Paulsboro, when the Coast Guard set up an "incident command" that included the federal Environmental Protection Agency, local authorities, and Conrail.

Paulsboro residents who were evacuated expressed frustration with the incident command for not better communicating when they could return to their homes. Many of those who were not evacuated said they did not understand why.

"When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge," Andrews said.

NTSB officials will go to Paulsboro to meet with the public before the agency issues the results of its investigation in January, Andrews said.


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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