By John McDevitt and Walt Hunter
WASHINGTON, D.C. (CBS) — The National Transportation Safety Board today issued its final report on the cause of the Paulsboro, NJ train derailment and chemical spill two years ago.
The NTSB in its final report on the November 30, 2012 derailment, that sent four Conrail tank cars off a bridge in Paulsboro, one tearing open and spewing 20,000 of vinyl chloride, blames Conrail and also faults emergency workers for their handling of the emergency.
The federal agency says Conrail did not follow the recommendations of its own consultant to close the aging “swing bridge” permanently after 23 complaints were received about it not working properly.
After hearing the investigators’ final report, Dr. David Mayer, the NTSB’s managing director, said the first factor was Conrail allowing the train to proceed past a red signal light with the rail slide locks not fully engaged, and the reliance on a training and qualification program that did not prepare the train crew to examine the bridge lock system.
“Contributing to the accident was the lack of a comprehensive safety management program that would have identified and mitigated the risks associated with the continued operation of the bridge despite multiple bridge malfunctions of increasing frequency,” he added.
Nearly 700 residents were evacuated from their homes, 30 examined at local hospitals, but there were no reports of any serious injuries.
Another factor contributing to consequences following the accident, Meyer says, was the failure of the incident commander to implement and establish emergency response protocols to protect the community from exposure to the vinyl chloride that was released.
However, Representative John Burzichelli responded, saying he was offended by the criticism, and that emergency workers were getting their information from Conrail employees who also wore no breathing apparatus, and arrived before local officials.
A statement from Conrail reads, in part, “We regret that this incident occurred, and its impact on those that it affected. Conrail remains committed to the safe operation of our railroad for our neighboring communities, our employees and our customers.”
All four NTSB members voted to approve the probable cause report.
NTSB chairman Christopher Hart says 20 recommendations have been issued with an emphasis on improvements to rules, training, and communications:
“We have asked the Federal Railroad Administration to write a regulation about passing a red signal on a movable bridge analogous to an existing regulation for passing a broken rail, another danger that clearly demands respect. In addition, if there is a release of dangerous chemicals, responders must be trained and prepared to use the best available guidance to protect themselves and members of the community.”
Several lawsuits have now been filed by first responders and residents who fear the fumes may have caused permanent damage to their health as well as forcing them to leave their homes, in some cases for more than two weeks.