Fifty-four Paulsboro residents filed a lawsuit against Conrail and its parent company Tuesday, seeking medical screenings and compensation after some freight-train cars fell off a failed bridge into Mantua Creek and spewed toxic vinyl chloride into the air Nov. 30.
The suit says Conrail failed to properly inspect, maintain, and respond to complaints about the bridge. It notes that the train crossed the bridge through a red signal after the engineer of the train received permission from a Mount Laurel dispatcher to pass through.
The suit describes the bridge as having a "significant history of failure," citing a 2009 derailment that buckled part of it and 23 "trouble tickets" related to the bridge that Conrail received from crews or others in the past year, including nine since Oct. 27.
And the last train to pass through, eight hours before the 84-car freight train derailed, reported that it had received a "bridge failed to operate" recording after crossing.
"In spite of this litany of problems with the bridge," the suit says, Conrail "continued to use the bridge for freight trains of 80 cars or more transporting hazardous and toxic chemicals through a populated area."
The residents are asking Conrail and its parent, CSX Corp., to pay for medical monitoring to detect early signs of potentially life-threatening conditions that have been linked to sustained exposure to vinyl chloride. The suit claims such exposure can lead to brain and liver cancer, among other serious diseases.
"It is likely that everyone within a one-mile radius of the train accident was exposed to far greater than 5 ppm over than a period far greater than 15 minutes and far greater than 1 ppm averaged over an 8 hour period," the suit says, citing concentrations of vinyl chloride that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration considers hazardous.
The plaintiffs have experienced a variety of symptoms, including "respiratory and bronchial related illnesses, headaches, eye and skin irritations and multiple other symptoms," David Cedar, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement.
The amount of compensation the residents are seeking has yet to be determined because "issues are still ongoing," Esther Berezofsky, a lawyer for one of the firms representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview.
"There are still tanker cars in the creek. Air is still being monitored. There has not yet been a full assessment of the exposure that these people have sustained to the vinyl chloride," she said.
The suit, filed in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia, where Conrail is headquartered, follows another one filed last week by Paulsboro resident Alice Breeman. She is seeking $10 million in punitive damages and $150,000 in compensation for injuries. That suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Camden.
The release of the hazardous chemical caused the evacuation of nearly 700 residents, most of whom have since returned to their homes. At least 70 people visited the hospital that day.
The suit comes as cleanup crews continue to work to remove the derailed cars from the water. One, which was breached and had to be thoroughly cleaned last week to rid it of the chemical, was lifted out of the water Tuesday afternoon by a crane and placed on a barge. Three other cars remain in the water, two of which contain vinyl chloride.
The suit also claims that federal regulations required Conrail to inspect the bridge in September. National Transportation Safety Board officials have said that Conrail apparently failed to make the scheduled quarterly inspection.
"Conrail will respond to this lawsuit at the appropriate time and in the appropriate place," Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra said, repeating the company's response to the Breeman suit last week. "Our focus today remains on providing people in the community with assistance they need and working through the unified command to manage this incident."
He said he was likely to repeat that line in the coming days, suggesting that Conrail anticipates more lawsuits to come.
Berezofsky said some of the plaintiffs "were literally within a block" of the derailment site, while others lived outside the evacuation zone.