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Rickety Railroad Bridge Blamed For Massive Chloride Spill

Two weeks ago in New Jersey, a railroad bridge over Mantua Creek collapsed, sending four tanker cars plunging into the creek. Some 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride spilled from the railcars and raised a thick toxic cloud. Vinyl chloride, a component of PVC plastic, is an explosive and a known human carcinogen. Sixty people were hospitalized for chemical exposure.

Now, 54 area residents have filed a lawsuit against CSX Corporation, which operated the derailed train, and Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which owned and operated the bridge. The lawsuit claims that the companies had reason to know the bridge over Mantua Creek was unsound — residents had reported it — but they had continued to use and operate the bridge nevertheless.

The movable “swing bridge” was originally built in 1873. In Aug. 2009, a similar derailment and bridge collapse occurred. Repairs were made, but residents nearby say they continued to hear strange noises from the bridge, including loud bang that occurred when no train was on the bridge.

The bridge can be repositioned when not in use so that river traffic can cross below. When it is moved into position for a train crossing, it is designed to lock the bridge’s rails and the adjacent rails together. A green signal goes on when the rails are locked, indicating that the bridge is safe for a train to cross, and a red signal goes on when the track is not positioned properly or locked to the connecting track.

The 54 plaintiffs say that on the morning of the chemical spill, a crew moved the bridge remotely, but the red signal remained on.

The plaintiffs also claim that the defendants had received at least nine trouble tickets since Oct. 27 alone warning that the bridge was not being operated properly. The two companies had received at least 23 such complaints about the bridge in the past year.

On Nov. 19, a rail crew reported that the tracks had failed to lock properly. Another crew reported a malfunction merely 8 hours before the accident.

Nevertheless, Conrail continued to operate the bridge, and CSX Corporation continued to run 80-car trains filled with toxic chemicals along the bridge, which is in a populated area.

“The entire surrounding neighborhood became engulfed in a toxic cloud of vinyl chloride fumes,” the lawsuit reads. “Nearby residents described this as a fog so thick that ‘you couldn’t see the person next to you.'”

While it is unknown as yet what the long-term effects of the vinyl chloride spill may be on the environment, or whether any of the chemical exposure will cause cancer in any of the local residents — and it will take years to find out. The residents are seeking compensatory and punitive damages from the two companies.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Ancient, Rickety Railroad Bridge Caused Toxic Spill, Dozens Say,” Kevin Koeninger, Dec. 14, 2012

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