A chemical spill in a tiny Gloucester County town likely won’t have lasting environmental effects, but the accident raises concerns about continued spills into that section of tidal Delaware River waters.
While officials say the vinyl chloride spill has no direct impact on areas outside Paulsboro and will not affect the waters of the lower Delaware Bay, environmental advocates say the cumulative effects of chemicals accidentally spilled into Mantua Creek and, ultimately, the Delaware River and Bay, are concerning.
On Nov. 30, an 84-car freight train derailed after crossing a bridge over Mantua Creek, dumping four cars containing vinyl chloride into the tidal waterway near the Delaware River. A freight car carrying 22,800 gallons of vinyl chloride split open as it crashed into the water, sending an unknown amount of the chemical into the creek and air.
State Department of Environmental Protection officials said Thursday, less than a week after the spill, that there were no traces of the chemical in the water and that the gas had dissipated to nearly undetectable levels in the community, where a tenth of the population had been ordered evacuated for days. The chemical no longer posed a danger to the immediate community and never posed a danger outside the community, spokesman Larry Ragonese said.
Paulsboro, which is about 60 miles from Atlantic City, and Mantua Creek and the Delaware River have experienced numerous chemical spills in the past 20 years, most of them stemming from activity at the oil refinery in the town.
A review of the National Response Center database — a Coast Guard-operated data center for nearly all reportable toxic releases in the country — found that since 1990, 288 spills into Mantua Creek or the Delaware River have occurred in Paulsboro. By comparison, in nearby Westville, home to the former Sunoco Eagle Point refinery that closed in 2010, 133 spills were reported to the center.
While the ecological impact from this particular spill is expected to be negligible due to the nature of the chemical, the cumulative effects of the frequent chemical spills in Mantua Creek and nearby areas is what has Danielle Kreeger, science director of the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary, most concerned.
“Maybe this type of spill has a minimal impact, but they will just look at this one spill,” Kreeger said. “We’re just frustrated that the existing regulatory structure does not consider cumulative impacts.”
The section of the Delaware River from about the mouth of Mantua Creek north to near Trenton is home to the largest collection of freshwater tidal wetlands in the country. The wetlands and creeks provide critical breeding grounds to commercially important fish species, including the Atlantic sturgeon, which this year was listed as federally endangered.
Ragonese said that by Wednesday, air monitors were detecting little to no trace of vinyl chloride in the air, which meant that much of the chemical had evaporated. The agency had workers checking homes inside and outside the evacuation zone, and none was coming back with levels above the standard of 1 part per million established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The gas that did escape did not drift into nearby communities or counties and, instead, has dissipated into the atmosphere and poses no danger in the long or short terms, he said.
Due to the chemical’s natural tendency to evaporate, no traces of it would remain in buildings, furniture, drywall, linens or other materials, Ragonese said. As one chemist told him, he said, “This is a chemical that wants to escape. It wants to go into the air. This is not a long-lasting chemical. Any sign of it should be gone shortly.”
Residents who had the chemical detected in their homes were advised by authorities to open windows for several hours when they returned to ensure no traces remained.
Vinyl chloride is not oil and does not persist in the environment in the way that many petroleum chemicals do. Used almost solely to make plastics, PVC and vinyl products, vinyl chloride is a highly volatile chemical that, upon hitting the cold water of Mantua Creek, vaporized and remained as a fog for a short time over the water and moved into several blocks of downtown Paulsboro. Neighbors reported a strong, sweet odor, which is indicative of high to toxic levels of vinyl chloride, according to multiple news reports.
More than 70 people were hospitalized with breathing issues, nausea, headaches, stinging eyes and other immediate effects of the chemical exposure, though most patients were released quickly.
Evacuations and orders to shelter in place were given to dozens of homes and businesses surrounding the spill site, and on Tuesday, nearly 100 additional homes were ordered to evacuate after test results showed elevated levels of the chemical continued to persist. All but 10 households could return to their homes as of Friday, and the remaining evacuations are related to the ongoing recovery operation at the bridge, the Coast Guard said.
By Wednesday, the Coast Guard, which is charged with cleanup operations involving tidal waters, was working to pump the remaining vinyl chloride out of the tanker, which would eliminate the risk of future contamination. That operation was complete Wednesday evening, a Coast Guard news release stated.
Authorities and environmental advocates mostly are concerned with the chemical’s effects on human health. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in its Toxicity and Exposure Assessment for Children’s Health filing on the chemical that studies have looked primarily at how illnesses developed in adults who worked with the chemical for many years. However, some animal experiments show that exposure as infants and children could increase the risk of cancer later in life, the assessment stated.
Adults exposed to high amounts the chemical for a short time likely will experience breathing issues or some effect on the central nervous system, but long-term exposure can result in multiple types of deadly cancers, particularly liver cancer, multiple toxicological studies have shown.
Vinyl chloride exposure outside the industrial environment tends to come from polluted groundwater. The most common sources of the pollution are leaky landfills. Vinyl chloride is among the major contaminants at multiple New Jersey Superfund sites, including Emmells Septic Landfill in Galloway Township and the Price’s Pit landfill site in Egg Harbor Township, an EPA database shows.
But because the chemical is so volatile, the EPA and, by proxy, many state environmental agencies, including those in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, have not developed environmental standards beyond those for human exposure and drinking water, said Thomas Fikslin, manager of the Modeling, Monitoring, and Assessment Branch for the Delaware River Basin Commission.
“One of the reasons for that is many of the volatile organic chemicals don’t have an effect on aquatic life at the low concentrations in which they are found in the environment,” Fikslin said. “There is concern for the chemical in drinking water and fish consumption … but this doesn’t bioaccumulate, so the concern is less.”
Bioaccumulation is when a chemical gradually increases either in animal tissue or plant tissue and does not leave or degrade. Contaminants that most commonly accumulate in fish and human tissue are PCBs and mercury.
Ragonese said testing near water intakes in Philadelphia and Delran, Burlington County, which are the only two on the Delaware River in the vicinity, showed no vinyl chloride in the water. Federal drinking water standards limit the amount to 0.5 parts per billion when water is taken into the system.
“Those areas of the river are designated as sources of drinking water, so whenever there’s a release, we’re concerned with that,” Fikslin said.
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