WOODBRIDGE: Township prepared for tank car derailment

Published in the Home News Tribune 9/30/00

WOODBRIDGE: With knocks at their door and the blare from bullhorns, sleeping residents living near the Conrail lines off West Avenue in the township's Sewaren section were evacuated from their homes yesterday in case a derailed tank car carrying liquid butane exploded or ignited.

And the damage from an explosion of the highly combustible liquid could have been extensive.

Carteret Fire Capt. Robert Magella, a 20-year veteran of his department, said heavy damage would be expected if a tank carrying almost 30,000 gallons of butane, a liquefied petroleum gas, exploded.  Damage would be particularly heavy within a 1,000-foot radius of the tank car.

He explained pressure can build up inside a damaged tank car, and when the gas looks to escape quickly it causes an explosion.

"And if one car goes, they all go. Who knows what the damage will be," said James Mancuso, a Carteret resident concerned about the tank cars in his neighborhood.

John Mitch, Woodbridge's director of emergency management, said property damage can occur with a fire, especially in an area where rail cars are in close proximity to homes.

Yesterday, no damage or injuries were reported after a butane tank car derailed on a side track.

Mitch said the township's emergency operations plan worked perfectly, with the fire chief calling for evacuation and police and emergency management officials making the notifications. A first-aid squad also assisted.

Bob Libkind, Conrail spokesman, said tank cars are solidly built with two shells, an outer shell and an inner shell, which holds the materials. Both shells are made with three-quarter-inch-thick steel to resist damage. The tanks also have thermal protection jackets to keep them cool.

The tank has a steel head shield on each end of the car. Each has special couplers, mechanisms that allow one car to attach to another, making it difficult for the couplers to puncture the ends of the cars.

"They are designed so they can take a bump. There wasn't even a scratch," said Libkind. The derailment was at a low speed. The tanker leaned over, but it was not on its side.

The accident fueled more criticism of a plan to transport New York City's garbage by train through Middlesex County. Opponents said yesterday's derailment in Woodbridge highlights the pitfalls of the plan.

But a spokesman for the company that wants to ship the garbage by train from a proposed Linden transfer station said the incident proves just the opposite. "It seems like the system worked," said Alan Marcus, a spokesman for Browning Ferris Industries. "It also shows that none of the cargo spilled, and it was fine in a few hours."

BFI has proposed building a marine transfer station in Linden to take in New York's garbage and pack it onto sealed containers that would be shipped by rail through Middlesex County to out-of-state landfills.

"When you have accidents with trucks, you have garbage all over the roads," Marcus said. "There was a garbage-truck accident (yesterday) that closed Route 1 in Lawrenceville. There was a derailment (yesterday) morning, and nothing got closed except a track that doesn't affect anyone."

But Carteret Mayor James Failace, an opponent of the proposed garbage train, viewed the derailment differently.

"This is exactly what our problem is, what we're very afraid of," Failace said. "We have these trains running through Port Reading and Woodbridge all day. Thank God it wasn't a catastrophe. The last thing we need is another one-mile-long train going through."

Beatrice Bernzott of Linden, who helped to form Jerseyans United to Stop New York City Trash, agreed.

"When a truck has an accident, it's on the highway," Bernzott said. "When a train has an accident, it's in your backyard.

"This latest incident on the Conrail-CSX line just proves once more how unsafe trains are and how lucky the residents along the rail are that this wasn't a catastrophe."

Contributing: Staff writers Kathleen Hopkins and Nina Rizzo.

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