By Assemblywoman Linda Stender
A freight train transporting highly toxic, cancer-causing vinyl chloride through a working-class town derails on a cold November morning, releasing a toxic cloud so thick you cannot see the person standing next to you. As the hazardous chemical spreads through the town, frightened residents are evacuated, many others are sent to the hospital, while overwhelmed officials try to gain control of the highly precarious situation.
This may sound like another doomsday movie scene, but it was very much the scene in Paulsboro, Gloucester County a year ago, when more than 23,000 pounds of the chemical leaked, forcing the evacuation of about 700 residents and sickening at least 100.
There were luckily no fatalities in the Paulsboro spill, but many residents, business owners and first responders have sued Conrail, which owned the derailed train, over health problems they say developed only after the toxic train wreck.
The incident was not catastrophic, but it could have been. Home to 90 hazardous facilities housed in 19 of our 21 counties, the threat of a toxic chemical disaster and its impact on residents is alarmingly real in New Jersey.
That is why we need inherently safer technologies that can be used to protect residents from a worse-case scenario spill. We don’t need to have our state crisscrossed with tankers carrying chemicals that if released, could cause serious damage.
New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the country. According to the “Failure to Act” report issued earlier this month by the New Jersey Work Environment Council (WEC), we have one of the highest ratios of toxic facilities per square mile in the nation. Even more unnerving, measures put in place years ago to minimize this risk to our communities have been largely ignored by the facilities and the current administration.
According to the report, these facilities can eliminate the risk by replacing these highly hazardous chemicals with safer ones or adopting safer production processes, but only a few have opted to take these precautionary measures. And apparently under the current administration, there is no impetus to do so.
The report makes clear that the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act passed five years ago under Gov. Jon Corzine to push these facilities to adopt safer measures has been largely ignored by the Christie administration.
Considering the risk to the public and the availability of safer options, it is difficult to comprehend why the administration is not doing more to protect residents. A year after the prevention act was signed, I sponsored legislation to encourage state, county and local governments, as well as the owners and operators of water utility facilities and the chemical companies that supply these utilities, to implement and utilize inherently safe technologies when necessary and appropriate to mitigate risks of terrorist attacks or the unintended release of hazardous materials.
Some facilities have stepped up and adopted safer measures, but there is still a lot of work to do to get the others to join. Nearly 300 water and wastewater treatment plants in New Jersey that used highly dangerous chlorine have switched to safer processing methods, according to the report.
We should be encouraging the use of these safer options and the production of inherently safer industrial technologies to help reduce potential threats to the public. The governor must take the lead in this effort by enforcing the Toxic Catastrophe Prevention Act. These facilities have a responsibility to the communities that house them, but seem to be acting with impunity since there is no real pressure from state government.
The report found that many of the facilities operating in the state have failed to consider solutions for using safer chemicals and processes being used successfully by others in the industry. Seven of the nine facilities that claimed that safer options were not economically feasible, failed to provide the required quantitative analyses and none of the reports accounted for the economic benefits of preventing large-scale toxic exposures.
The report also found that the administration has not provided the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with enough staff to review for compliance many of the update reports facilities are required to file. Some of those update reports have been sitting for nearly two years without being fully reviewed.
By refusing to even consider safer measures, these facilities are playing Russian roulette with millions of New Jersey residents and the administration is letting them. We have to do a better job of protecting our residents from a potentially devastating toxic chemical disaster. This is not a far-fetched scenario. Rather than lament what we could have done differently after the fact, we should safeguard our communities by enforcing the law and advocating for the development of inherently safer technologies.
Linder Stender is a Democratic Assemblywoman representing the 22nd district in Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties.