Toxic Train Wreck Exposes Weakness in Federal Chemical Policy

The August 6, 2012, fire at the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, California, caused by a release of flammable vapor, was one of several recent accidents in an industry with little to no government oversight.

In late November, while other parts of New Jersey were recovering from the superstorm, the quiet town of Paulsboro was blindsided by a very unnatural disaster. A train derailed while crossing a local bridge, sending freight cars tumbling into the water below and releasing a toxic swirl of the flammable gas known as vinyl chloride, used to make PVC plastics. In the following days, chaos ensued as residents hurriedly evacuated. Authorities struggled to manage the emergency respons, leaving people confused and frustrated by a lack of official communicationabout hazards.

Though the derailment came as a shock to residents, this was an accident waiting to happen, environmental advocates say. Paulsboro is just one of the latest in a spate of recent disasters(including others involving vinyl chloride) in industries that handle massive amounts of toxins with minimal oversight.

At a recent community meeting about the aftermath of the incident, residents expressed exasperation at the government’s disaster-response team, accusing officials of keeping them in the dark about toxic risks, reports the South Jersey Times:

“How much is all of our lives worth to you?” Michael Hamilton, a Pine Street resident, asked. “What if somewhere down the line we develop cancer? Who is responsible, and when will you take responsibility?”

Community activists and officials are seeking accountability for the chemical fallout as well. There are immediate concerns—that residents were not adequately informed about the exposure risks, or that in the initial emergency response, workers may not have received appropriate protective gear.

But in the backdrop looms what many see as a chronic government failure to uphold key aspects of federal environmental safety law. In a joint statement following the incident, Greenpeace, the Virginia-based Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), and the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC) renewed their demand for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revamp chemical safety rules under the Clean Air Act. They want Washington to set new rules to push industrial facilities to implement “inherently safer technologies” or safer chemical processes whenever feasible.

The idea, which would parallel in part New Jersey’s current regulations, is to move the industry holistically toward safer processes that are intrinsically less hazard-prone.”We’ve seen over the past decade, disaster after disaster,” WEC Chemical Safety Project Coordinator Denise Patel tells In These Times. Noting that stronger safeguards in New Jersey have goaded companies to take measures to reduce environmental and safety risks, she added, “We know there are safer chemicals, we know there are safer technologies that these companies could be using.” [cont’d.]

Originally posted at In These Times