Paulsboro heals slowly from rail spill

The home of Councilman Gary Stevenson in Paulsboro overlooks Mantua Creek, scene of the derailment and spill a year ago.
The home of Councilman Gary Stevenson in Paulsboro overlooks Mantua Creek, scene of the derailment and spill a year ago. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 02, 2013

Walt Stevenson grew up by Mantua Creek in Paulsboro.

When he was a kid, Stevenson helped a railroad employee with a bad leg manually open and close the bridge overhead where trains passed through. "Never a lick of trouble," he said.

As a teenager, Stevenson courted his high school sweetheart, Irma, on the creek, rowing out to the Delaware and all the way to Philadelphia International Airport. They married and later taught their kids to swim there.

And they've lived in a house on the waterfront, the bridge visible from their kitchen window, for the last 28 years. Their son, Gary, a borough councilman and firefighter, and daughter-in-law, Rae Lynn, live across the street.

Nov. 30, 2012, brought a different kind of memory: At 7 a.m., an 82-car Conrail freight train derailed and four tanker cars plunged into the creek. One of them breached, releasing thousands of gallons of toxic vinyl chloride into the atmosphere.

Walt, 77, and Irma, 74, were evacuated, as were about 700 other residents that night and in the days to come. All told, the Stevensons spent 17 days in a hotel.

Even this refinery town, accustomed to the occasional chemical spill, was shaken. "This was a total brand-new situation for everyone," Irma Stevenson said last week.

A year later, interviews with local officials, businesses, and residents show a small, working-class town slowly recovering from the accident, even as litigation and a federal investigation into the derailment and response continue.

"It's coming along. But it's moving very slow. To try to put the town back together, it's a slow process," Mayor Jeffery Hamilton said last week after U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) announced federal legislation that would call for independent oversight of the railroad industry.

The community, Hamilton said, is "going to stay on Conrail. But it's federally regulated. So how much power do we really have?"

Some still hope to be compensated for an accident that shut down schools and businesses. Dozens of people went to the hospital, but officials say the spill did not cause any serious injuries.

Brenda Sabatini, 38, of Carneys Point, runs Sab's Auto Repair on Broad Street with her husband. She said the shop was closed for 2½ weeks after the derailment.

She sued Conrail, saying her shop lost at least $3,000 on scheduled jobs.

"We have a mortgage here," Sabatini said. "This is our livelihood, you know?"

A few blocks down, Elterekae Mears, 22, said although being evacuated was an inconvenience, business had picked up at the MetroPCS cellphone store where he works.

"I can't complain," he said.

National attention

The derailment brought national attention to industrial Paulsboro, population 6,100, a quiet, aging town well-known for its vaunted high school wrestling team, whose season starts Dec. 20.

"We're not a rich town," Irma Stevenson said in her kitchen last week, wearing a Paulsboro wrestling sweatshirt. "But we're a great town."

In July, Paulsboro volunteer firefighters traveled to Washington to testify before the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the derailment.

"This is not a Paulsboro problem," NTSB vice chairman Christopher A. Hart said at the hearing. "This is a national problem: of resources, of training. How do we address the situation?"

The first step, at least in the Paulsboro case, may be to determine what caused the derailment.

Some facts are not in dispute. Conrail owns and operates the movable bridge. As the train approached the bridge, it came to a red light, indicating the bridge was not properly locked. The conductor inspected and determined otherwise. A dispatcher then gave the go-ahead to proceed.

Work crews crossing the bridge reported 24 "trouble tickets" in the year before the derailment, according to the NTSB. Half of them were recorded in the month beforehand.

The same bridge gave way in 2009, causing the derailment of nine coal cars. Though much of the bridge was replaced after that, some parts still date to 1873. Last month, Conrail announced it would replace the entire structure by September.

"It was due," Hamilton said.

The NTSB is expected to issue its findings next year. That investigation is being watched closely by lawyers for the hundreds of Paulsboro businesses, first responders, and residents - including the Stevensons - who have filed suit against Conrail and its parent companies.

Most of the suits seek punitive damages, medical monitoring, or compensation for lost business. Long-term exposure to dangerous levels of vinyl chloride can result in headaches, dizziness, and liver damage, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In a statement, Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra said the rail company regretted the derailment and "remains committed to Paulsboro and its surrounding communities."

Conrail has settled "thousands of claims" with residents and businesses, he said, and is "cooperating fully" with the NTSB investigation.

The emergency response also has come under scrutiny at the local level. A three-person panel appointed by Gloucester County Administrator Chad Bruner to investigate the county response to the derailment and chemical spill is expected to release a report by January. Bruner said the freeholder board would consider possible recommendations from the panel.

A dozen Washington Township firefighters withdrew from the county's hazmat team a week after the derailment, saying they were equipped with inoperable monitoring devices and could not detect the extent of their chemical exposure.

"I don't think the county understands the perception that it's being swept under the rug," Sam Micklus, chairman of the Washington Township Board of Fire Commissioners, said in an interview.

After the derailment, the firefighters filed a complaint with the state Department of Health. In June, the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued 12 violations to the county Emergency Response Center for "unsafe or unhealthful working conditions." The violations, marked as "serious," included not providing first responders with a medical examination or consultation immediately after the emergency.

Bruner said the violations were abated in August. "We don't take it lightly," he said, adding that the county did not have "any citations at this point." A Health Department spokeswoman confirmed the issues had been addressed.

Lessons learned

Lessons learned from the derailment include the need for the borough to practice emergency procedures such as sheltering in place more regularly, said Fire Chief Alfonso G. Giampola.

For its part, Conrail conducted 23 training exercises and other activities over the last year with local first responders to improve preparedness, Hotra said.

But there is only so much emergency responders can do to prepare for a toxic chemical spill, Giampola said. The NTSB estimated in July that 25,000 to 30,000 railcars containing hazardous materials pass through Paulsboro each year.

Concerns linger. "Am I confident it won't happen again? Eh, not yet," Giampola said. "Are we getting back to normal? I think so."

For the broader public in Paulsboro, the derailment may have caused a shift in thinking about their industrial surroundings.

"You kind of accept that, OK, this is where we are, this is what we've chosen," said Frank Scambia, a longtime superintendent of Paulsboro schools. "When you have the event happen, then it's like, wow. It was tragic. But I think it could have been far worse."


aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846

@AndrewSeidman

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