Special Reports

Investigation: Paulsboro derailments "Death Zone"

Friday, July 26, 2013

For the first time, we are getting a look at the dangerous levels of vinyl chloride that Paulsboro residents may have been exposed to following last November's train derailment.

Information just released by the National Transportation Safety Board shows more people than first thought were potentially exposed to deadly levels of that toxic chemical.

Action News took a look at the area where experts were warned the general population could experience life-threatening health effects or even death.

In the hours following the November 30th train derailment, members of the emergency response command staff testified to the NTSB they were provided with a map, that has never been released to the public until now...

A half-mile wide area was identified as being in the "Red Zone" or "Death Zone" but initially only a few blocks inside that target area were evacuated.

"They knew they were dealing with very high levels of vinyl chloride, none of that information was relayed to the first responders," attorney Mark Cuker told Action News. "The police patrolled this area with no breathing protection whatsoever, for days."

Cuker represents several first responders and residents who became ill following the derailment.

In a NTSB hearing about the incident, investigators say initially residents, police and firefighters on the ground were told the chemical was not toxic.

"The information given to people was false," Cuker contends. "When in fact there was a dangerous level of vinyl chloride in the air. It is unfortunate it has taken this long for the truth about that to come out."

About 300 people were within the "Red Zone" identified as "Death Possible." More than 500 people were within the area where the general population could experience irreversible, or other serious, long-lasting health effects.

"It is pretty scary," business owner Doug Ricotta told Action News. "It is pretty pathetic the town didn't tell anybody anything."

In the weeks and months that followed, residents say public officials failed to warn them about the exposure to dangerous levels of vinyl chloride, or exactly how far that danger zone spread.

"That's terrible. It's like everything around here has a disease to it," said Paulsboro resident Gary Bynum.

"I'm a little concerned about my health because we were here for about 4 days after the spill," added Paulsboro businessman Jerry McMyne.

The question now: What this means for the long term health of everyone who was exposed to deadly levels of this toxic chemical.

"We know it is a toxic chemical, we know it causes cancer," Cuker said. " I think no one can say what it means for the future."

Conrail already reached settlements with an unknown number of families living in the "Red Zone." For as little as $500 per person, they gave up their right to sue Conrail, should they get sick in the future.

(Copyright ©2014 WPVI-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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