Menendez proposes rail-safety legislation in Paulsboro

Work progresses toward replacing the rail bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro where a freight train derailed in 2012, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Work progresses toward replacing the rail bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro where a freight train derailed in 2012, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents.
Posted: August 09, 2014

The incessant banging of a pile driver Thursday marked another day of construction in the replacement of the East Jefferson Street Bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro - the setting of a notorious train accident nearly two years ago.

Though it was a sign of progress, it was to some an irritating reminder.

"We're quite pleased that there's work going on," said Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), but he added that the noise drowning out much of the early-afternoon news conference demonstrated "how the railroad conducts itself."

"They're oblivious to what's going on around them," the former Paulsboro mayor said of Conrail. "And that's exactly what happened on that day."

Officials gathered near the site of the 2012 train derailment and chemical spill - and against the noisy backdrop - to support U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D., N.J.) as he outlined forthcoming legislation aimed at improving railroad safety and transportation of hazardous materials. The announcement came days after federal investigators formally concluded their inquiry into the wreck.

Menendez plans to develop legislation that would establish stronger penalties for railroads that violate safety standards and that would require information about hazardous materials to be supplied to local emergency management officials and first responders, among other changes.

He said his proposal, expected to be introduced when Congress returns from recess in September, would better balance the interests of industry and safety. But "no legislation can ever replace the peace of mind of this community," he said.

The accident happened early on Nov. 30, 2012, when an 82-car freight train got the go-ahead to cross the swing-style bridge despite a red light. Seven tanker cars derailed and four fell into the creek. One ruptured and released 20,000 gallons of vinyl chloride - a known carcinogen - into the air. Hundreds of residents were eventually evacuated.

The bridge had been cited for a number of issues and had racked up a dozen trouble tickets in the month before the accident. A consultant had recommended that Conrail keep the bridge locked in the closed position until it could be further assessed, officials said, but the railroad did not follow that advice.

Conrail, in a statement Thursday, said: "We appreciate and share Sen. Menendez's interest in railroad safety."

As for the pile driver during the news conference, Conrail spokesman Kirk Dorn said stopping the machine in the middle of the work would not be safe. "This construction is on a schedule. It certainly was not by design," he said.

Menendez's pending legislation is a response to some of the nearly two dozen recommendations the National Transportation Safety Board issued last week.

Menendez said he had seen too many NTSB findings become nothing more than "a report that lies on the shelf."

The NTSB determined that the accident was caused by faulty locks that did not secure the bridge, and it faulted Conrail for not ensuring that train crews were qualified to inspect such mechanisms. Immediately before the accident, a conductor inspected the bridge, determined it was safe, and received the go-ahead from Conrail dispatch.

The NTSB also placed blame on local emergency responders for a lack of preparedness.

Menendez said: "In fairness to the first responders, this is why my legislation says that the industry must notify communities" of hazardous materials in transit.

"If Paulsboro's first responders knew there was vinyl chloride coming through, they would be able to have a plan for that," he said.

In November, then-U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D., N.J.) introduced two bills in response to the derailment - one requiring independent oversight of railroads, and one requiring the designation of a federal incident commander during such accidents. The measures remain in subcommittees of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Burzichelli, Assemblywoman Celeste Riley (D., Gloucester), and State Sen. Donald Norcross (D., Camden) said Thursday they also were exploring related legislation and regulations.

Actions state authorities could take include updating hazardous-materials-preparedness training for firefighters and ensuring that the Office of Emergency Management reviews and enforces requirements for municipal emergency operations plans. Some information in Paulsboro's plan was outdated at the time of the derailment because a new plan was two years overdue.



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