The dozens of firefighters who arrived at a train derailment in Paulsboro on Nov. 30 knew the toxic chemical vinyl chloride had been released into the atmosphere.
But some of the responders say they were equipped with inoperable monitoring devices unable to detect the extent of their chemical exposure.
The faulty equipment, those firefighters say, reflected the county's years-long "lackadaisical commitment" to emergency preparedness and led them to resign from Gloucester County's hazardous-materials team days later.
The New Jersey Department of Health is investigating the allegations, an agency spokeswoman said.
But even if the devices had worked, scientists say they have no clue what level of vinyl chloride is dangerous when the chemical is in the air around people.
These findings and others, gleaned from documents and interviews with officials, raise questions about the responders' long-term health, the county's preparedness, and the efficacy of officials' order for residents to "shelter in place" behind closed doors.
They also show the challenge of crisis-response efforts, in which health officials must maintain the public's confidence under trying and imperfect conditions.
On Dec. 6, six days after seven train cars derailed over Mantua Creek, one spewing 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride into the air, the Washington Township Fire District withdrew from the Gloucester County Hazardous Materials and Decontamination teams, which were part of the initial response.
In a letter to Joseph T. Butts, director of the county Emergency Response Center, Sam Micklus, chairman of the township Board of Fire Commissioners, cited what he said were systemic problems with the county's preparedness program.
"Over the past few years, we have pointed out the failure of the county leaders to perform drills and to inspect, prepare, and repair equipment," Micklus wrote. "There has been no improvement since our first bringing these issues to your attention."
Air-monitoring devices Washington Township firefighters used on Nov. 30 had uncharged batteries, Micklus said in an interview.
The county hazmat team, which includes Deptford and Pitman township firefighters, was to have monthly two- to four-hour training meetings, he said.
Last year, Micklus said, it had two. And "one was a meet-and-greet," he said.
A spokesman for the Deptford Fire Department could not be reached, and Pitman Department Chief Ryan Pierson declined to comment on the criticism by Washington Township.
Butts also could not be reached. But in a statement, the county said it takes "all issues dealing with public safety and our first responders seriously and is reviewing the matter and will address it accordingly."
The county conducts monthly equipment inspections and the state police, which audits the unit, has given it high marks, the statement added. The team received a positive evaluation for its readiness and capabilities in August, the county said.
The Health Department opened its inquiry into the condition of the air-quality monitors after receiving a complaint from the Washington Township department, the agency spokeswoman said Friday.
The ability to effectively handle crises such as the Paulsboro derailment requires lots of practice, said Joy Spellman, director of Burlington County College's Center for Public Health Preparedness.
"It's expensive to do drills," she said. "We're always on the hunt for funding."
Federal funding for public health preparedness has decreased by 38 percent since 2005, according to a report this month from Trust for America's Health, a nonprofit health-advocacy group. New Jersey has cut funding for preparedness in four consecutive fiscal years, according to the group.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration this year awarded New Jersey a grant for emergency preparedness planning and training worth about $500,000. Yet Gloucester County has not applied for money in "a couple years," said Mary Goepfert, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Management.
Camden, Cape May, and Middlesex Counties all requested and received portions of the grant this year, Goepfert said.
A Gloucester County spokeswoman could not say Friday why the county had not sought funding.
The Paulsboro derailment, which forced the evacuation of nearly 700 residents, might have been especially challenging because the city had not faced a crisis of such magnitude in decades, Paulsboro Fire Chief Alfonso G. Giampola said.
But the response was excellent nonetheless, he said.
Beyond whether the county was prepared, there are questions about the evacuation boundaries and shelter-in-place strategy implemented by those overseeing the response effort. Officials issued several orders for non-evacuated residents to remain behind closed doors.
"The shelter-in-place was established due to a couple of spiked readings" for vinyl chloride in the air, Coast Guard spokesman Nick Ameen said. "It was taken for safety precautions."
The Coast Guard, which left Paulsboro after workers cleared the site, did not respond to other requests for comment.
Sheltering in place is "not so much a way of protecting people, it's a way of making them feel like something is being done," said David K. Rosner, professor of public health and history at Columbia University and an author of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.
"If . . . you have windows and doors closed and a well-insulated house, it probably helps to stay indoors until the gas dissipates. So it's not a crazy idea for some communities that have well-insulated houses and can keep this material out for a period of time," he said. "But it's not really effective immediately after an event . . . when no one's been indoors. By the time you manage to get to a safe environment that is secure, you have breathed in some material."
Scientists do not know what level of vinyl chloride exposure is dangerous to populations, Rosner said.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration says exposure that exceeds 1 part per million over eight hours or 5 parts per million over 15 minutes are dangerous in the workplace. But those thresholds are hotly debated, he said.
Limits are "not well established for any generalized environmental situation" involving younger people, children, and others in a community.
"I'm hesitant to say [exposure is] terrible," Rosner said. "We also don't know that it's not terrible."
Many borough residents said they could smell the chemical. Outside Underwood Memorial Hospital the day of the accident, Tryphaena Cooper, 26, of Paulsboro, said the vinyl chloride created a fog so thick "you couldn't see the person next to you."
"If people saw it at their feet, you're talking about significant exposures," Rosner said.
When the evacuation zone expanded by 100 homes on Dec. 4, Coast Guard Capt. Kathy Moore said it was because officials had detected elevated levels of vinyl chloride in those areas, though not for a sustained period.
But according to readings provided by officials leading the cleanup, the chemical level at 11:59 p.m. that day in non-evacuated areas was 9.4 parts per million, nearly 1 part per million more than in the evacuated area.
That "calls into question the science behind the evacuation zones and how they were delineated," said Bill Wolfe, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and a former policy analyst at the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Similar qualms were expressed by Paulsboro residents at community meetings. Nevertheless, local officials have hailed the performance of the workers who led the response.
"I haven't had to visit one person in the hospital," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a former Paulsboro mayor.
The main problem was communicating with the public, officials have said.
"That's something we're internally working on," said Giampola, the Paulsboro fire chief. "You never are prepared to have an incident of this scale no matter how much you're prepared."
Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers contributed to this article.