Federal accident investigators believe local police and fire officials did more harm than good after a freight train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in Gloucester County, N.J. last year.
At a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in Washington, D.C. Tuesday, investigators say local authorities didn't follow safety standards for handling a chemical spill, adding to first responders' and the public's exposure to dangerous vinyl chloride gas.
In the early morning hours of November 30, 2012, a half dozen rail cars derailed on a bridge crossing the Mantua Creek. One car containing vinyl chloride was ripped open after crashing into the creek below, releasing 20,000 gallons of the chemical.
When the vinyl chloride mixed with water, a vapor cloud was created, engulfing large swaths of the town.
NTSB investigator Paul Stencil said local authorities failed to follow standard procedures requiring the use of breathing apparatuses for responders -- even though monitors found unsafe concentrations of the chemical in the air.
"One hour and a half after the derailment, the hazardous materials team air monitoring data showed the first responders being exposed to vinyl chloride concentrations that significantly exceeded permissible or safe levels," Stencil testified.
Fire officials also set up a command post 50 yards from where tank cars were leaking. Safety standards called for the post to be positioned in a safe area outside the hot zone.
Stencil said investigators found misinformation about the hazardousness of the chemical ran rampant following the derailment.
Paulsboro Police reported the chemical was non-toxic, even after fire officials learned vinyl chloride was highly flammable and could cause respiratory and nervous system issues, according to the NTSB.
Police also changed an initial evacuation order to a shelter-in-place order about a half hour after the accident based on the false information over the toxicity of the chemical.
“Despite public statements that the hazard had completely dissipated, air monitoring teams continued to detect a vinyl chloride throughout the morning of the accident,” Stencil said.
Evacuation orders were eventually reordered that evening and lasted for several days.
In Paulsboro, news of the testimony by investigators did not sit well with Paulsboro Police Cheif Chris Wachter. He called the criticism of the local response the "federal government at its best."
"They weren't here. They don't know, we know what we did was appropriate, prudent for the community and department," Chief Wachter said.
However, resident Vera Robinson, who had to be evacuated from her home for 10 days, feels responders should have evacuated the area sooner.
"When I first went outside there was a great big cloud and I was not told to leave right away. I was here for most of the day," Robinson recalled. "I'm concerned about my health. I don't know what is going to happen to me in the future."
Robinson also said she'd like officials to test the soil to see whether the leak has left long term effects.
"I usually plant a vegetable garden, so I haven't done that now," she said. "I don't know if it would be safe for me to eat anything out of the ground."
There are no fatalities linked to the accident, but several residents have filed lawsuits against Conrail, which owns the track.
Conrail officials say they are cooperating with the investigation and will participate in the hearings -- which are set to last two days.