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Ancient, Rickety Railroad Bridge|Caused Toxic Spill, Dozens Say

PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Sixty people were hospitalized after 100,000 gallons of vinyl chloride spilled from railcars on a poorly maintained bridge two weeks ago, causing a toxic cloud so thick "you couldn't see the person next to you," dozens claim in court.

Click here to read Courthouse News' Environmental Law Review.

Lead plaintiff Jill Swindell-Filiaggi and 53 other residents of Paulsboro, N.J., sued Conrail and CSX Corp. for the Nov. 30 accident, in the Court of Common Pleas.

They claim CSX and Conrail failed to maintain a 150-year-old bridge and ignored warning signs of its decay.

The disastrous spill began at about 7 a.m. two weeks ago, when the railroad bridge over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro collapsed, according to the complaint.

"At that time and place, a railroad train operated by defendant CSX Corporation derailed while crossing a bridge owned and operated by defendant Conrail Corporation. The bridge collapsed and four railroad tank cars plunged into the creek," the complaint states.

"The bridge in question had a significant history of failure. A similar derailment and collapse occurred in the same place on August 25, 2009. Even after purported repairs to the bridge, nearby residents reported to defendants that they heard strange noises coming from the bridge including a loud 'bang' when no train was on it.

"The bridge in question was built in approximately 1873, and is a 'swing bridge' which can be positioned either to permit water travel to go along the Mantua Creek or rail traffic to go over the Mantua Creek.

"A train cannot safely cross the bridge unless it aligns and locks with the adjacent rails before any trains are allowed to cross the bridge.

"During the year leading to Nov. 30, 2012, the defendants received at least 23 'trouble tickets' reporting that the Paulsboro Bridge had malfunctioned.

"Since Oct. 27, 2012, approximately one month before this accident, the defendants received at least nine 'trouble tickets' reporting improper operation of, or malfunction of the bridge in question."

The plaintiffs claim that a rail crew reported on Nov. 19 that the tracks on the bridge failed to lock with the tracks on both sides of the bridge. Another rail crew reported a malfunction 8 hours before the crash, the complaint states.

But "In spite of this litany of problems with the bridge, defendants continued to use the bridge for freight trains of 80 cars or more transporting hazardous and toxic chemicals through a populated area."

A train crew remotely moved the bridge into position before the crash.

"The bridge was supposed to give a green signal when it was in proper position and the track was properly locked, and to give a red signal when the bridge was not properly positioned, or the track on the bridge was not properly locked to the track on the other side of the bridge. After the train crew used the remote control to align and lock the bridge, the signal remained red," the complaint states.

"The train proceeded across the bridge and derailed; four tank cars filled with vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) plunged into the creek.

"Each of the railroad tank cars contained about 25,000 gallons of VCM and over 100,000 pounds of the VCM from at least one of the cars was released into the environment.

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

"Vinyl chloride is flammable, explosive and a known human carcinogen which has been specifically linked to angiosarcoma of the liver and hepatocellular carcinoma, acro-osteolysis and Raynaud's Syndrome in humans. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, vinyl chloride has also been associated with lung cancer, and brain cancer and tumors of the haematolymphopoietic system."

More than 60 people were hospitalized after the spill, the plaintiffs say.

They seek compensatory and punitive damages for negligence and trespass.

They are represented by Mark Cuker, with Williams, Cuker and Berezofsky in Philadelphia.

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