Sometimes, personal injury affects one individual, and sometimes it can ravage an entire community. Federal Judge Robert Kugler recently ruled that residents and business owners in Paulsboro can proceed with civil liability suits against Conrail, Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation regarding a derailment and toxic chemical spill last November.
The complaints allege that on the day of the incident workers operated the train and the movable bridge in a negligent and reckless fashion, ignoring a red warning signal indicating that the swing bridge’s rails weren’t properly positioned. The plaintiffs also claim the companies were notified of problems with the bridge, which they failed to correct.
When the bridge collapsed, a car containing vinyl chloride ruptured and released more than 100,000 pounds of the gas into the air, creating a dense, toxic fog that required the emergency evacuation of some 600 residents.
How dangerous was the incident?
The EPA classifies vinyl chloride as a Group A, human carcinogen and a genotoxicant, causing chemical alterations of DNA in tissues that may lead to cancer. Liver, kidney, respiratory and central nervous system damage have all been linked to vinyl chloride exposure.
According to the EPA, the odor threshold for vinyl chloride is 3000 ppm, so anyone who could smell the gas after the accident was being exposed to highly toxic levels. OSHA regulations limit employee exposure to no more than 1 ppm averaged over any eight-hour period, and no more than 5 ppm averaged over any period not exceeding 15 minutes.
The EPA cites studies indicating that early-life exposure to vinyl chloride can increase susceptibility to cancer later in life. Based on these studies, fetuses, infants and young children are considered highly susceptible to risks from vinyl chloride exposure.
The plaintiffs want Conrail and the other defendants to fund ongoing medical monitoring to watch for early signs of more serious conditions. The defendants claimed the plaintiffs hadn't adequately demonstrated why medical monitoring is needed.