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New Jersey derailment: How safe are hazmat rail shipments? (+video)

The New Jersey derailment on Friday sent tank cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride off a collapsed bridge and into a creek, reviving safety concerns. But hazmat rail accidents are down.

By Staff writer / November 30, 2012

Officials examine a derailed freight train tank car in Paulsboro, N.J., Friday morning. People in three southern New Jersey towns were told Friday to stay inside after a freight train derailed and several tanker cars carrying hazardous materials toppled from a bridge and into a creek.

Mel Evans/AP

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A derailment that caused a spill of toxic and highly flammable gas from at least one of several tank cars that toppled off a New Jersey bridge and into a creek, has raised concerns about rail shipments of hazardous chemicals through the nation's cities and highly populated areas.

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In the immediate aftermath, New Jersey authorities blamed a bridge failure for sending seven train cars plunging into Mantua Creek, according local news reports. At least four of the tank cars containing toxic vinyl chloride fell from the collapsed bridge into the creek, the South Jersey Times reported.

Just one of the cars leaked vinyl chloride, which eventually dissipated into the air, state officials told the Associated Press. But some 20 people were reportedly affected by the vapor from the wreck with nearby residents evacuated and schools locked down.

It was a sharp reminder of years gone by, when the threat of tank cars carrying toxic chemicals through urban communities was a top concern.

After 9/11, federal authorities and Congress highlighted the threat from rail cars carrying chlorine, ammonia, other toxic gases, as well as explosives, traveling through densely populated areas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2002 warned that Al Qaeda might be planning to attack US trains, either to derail them or to blow up hazardous material-laden tank cars.

The cause was also joined by environmental groups and activists who, among other things, famously photographed a tank car carrying chlorine with the nation's Capitol building in the background. That began a push to get such shipments detoured around metropolitan areas and heavily populated areas.

A handful of major accidents, including a 2001 freight train derailment near Minot, N.D., drove home the activists' point. In that case, five tank cars carrying ammonia gas broke open, releasing toxic fumes that killed one and injured 1,441, federal data show. In 2005, a train collision in Graniteville, S.C., broke open one tank car loaded with 90 tons of chlorine, releasing about two-thirds of the gas. Nine died and 252 were injured.            

Following the North Dakota accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in a 2004 study concluded that more than half of the 60,000 rail tank cars used to transport hazardous materials at that time were not built according to standards and were susceptible to rupture in the case of an accident.

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