UPDATED DECEMBER 7, 2012 — On November 30, 2012, a train transporting the chemical vinyl chloride derailed while crossing a bridge that collapsed over Mantua Creek, in Paulsboro, N.J., near Philadelphia. Four rail cars fell into the creek, breaching one tank and releasing approximately 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride.
Local, state, and federal emergency personnel responded on scene. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area, and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.
Vinyl chloride, which is used to make plastics, adhesives, and other chemicals, is a toxic gas. During this accident, most of the chemical was released directly to the air, and response teams are still determining how much might have dissolved in the creek’s waters, which feed into the Delaware River.
U.S. Coast Guard Sector Delaware Bay contacted NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) and requested scientific support for this environmental and public health threat.
The OR&R scientific support team worked to address early concerns about the air hazard, centering around possible health effects, evacuation decisions, proper protective equipment for responders, impacts to the Philadelphia airport two miles away, and reactivity between vinyl chloride and another rail car containing ethyl alcohol.
OR&R had a Scientific Support Coordinator (SSC) at the scene of the spill to work with the Coast Guard as they attempted to salvage the derailed cars from the creek and collapsed bridge. While the SSC departed on Dec. 6, a NOAA incident meteorologist remains at the incident command post to provide custom weather forecasts for the affected area, for air monitoring and to identify safe operating conditions for the crane work and other salvage operations.
OR&R’s Emergency Response Division remains involved from NOAA’s Seattle offices, where they are investigating potential problems which might occur if vinyl chloride accidentally is discharged into the water as salvage operations continue.
In addition, two scientists from NOAA’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services (CO-OPS) have been dispatched to Paulsboro to deploy a current meter and forecast the tides specifically for Mantua Creek (which is driven by tidal flows) to schedule safe crane and dive operations. To help the National Transport Safety Board’s investigation into this incident, CO-OPs scientists also will recreate the tidal cycle conditions during the time of the incident.
Removing the derailed train cars is a logistically complicated process. The Coast Guard coordinated the removal of the last 600 gallons of vinyl chloride from the breached tank by using acetone and suctioning out the vapors before attempting to move the tank. Next, the response team is bringing in cranes and barges to remove the rail cars and bridge debris from Mantua Creek.
The evacuations have ended and families slowly are returning to their homes near the creek. The process has been slow because each family is accompanied by a police officer and an air monitor, who goes into the home first to check for the presence of vinyl chloride before allowing families inside.