on November 25, 2013 at 5:07 PM, updated November 25, 2013 at 6:16 PM
PAULSBORO — The Jefferson Street Bridge, temporarily empty, and a partially-frozen Mantua Creek standing still behind him, Congressman Rob Andrews (D-1 of Haddon Heights) announced newly-proposed legislation that addresses his surroundings Monday afternoon.
Saturday marks one year since a train derailed over that bridge, a century-old structure that has been beleaguered with problems for years. Seven of the 84 cars of that train came dislodged from the tracks early that Friday morning, and four of those cars ended up in the water below. One tanker car was punctured in the accident and its contents — vinyl chloride gas — were leaked into the water and air of Paulsboro.
Following the incident, hundreds of borough residents spent weeks in local motels, exiled from their homes due to potential danger, the bridge was closed and a litany of agencies, including local first responders, the Coast Guard and the National Transportation Safety Board, worked to remove the fallen cars.
Andrews’ new legislation, introduced last week, includes two bills — one addressing railroad regulations and the second addressing chain of command in emergency situations.
“I am working with the Chairman of the Transportation Committee for independent, competent inspection of the freight rail industry,” he said.
The first bill introduced would mandate that railroad companies have all of their bridges inspected by a “reputable, independent engineering firm,” every two years and each switching system on these bridges inspected every six months.
The exact cause of the Nov. 30 train derailment is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but some have questioned whether the bridge — which swings open for marine traffic and closed for rail traffic — was in the fully closed and locked position.
Prior to last year’s derailment, the bridge had other problems. In 2009, 16 cars carrying coal derailed when the bridge buckled, and in the months before the Nov. 30 accident there were 23 “trouble tickets” reported in regards to the structure. Most of the problems included minor issues, but at least two were problems with signals or alignment.
Andrews’ legislation aims to make the railroads be proactive in dealing with these types of issues before massive accidents can occur by having the structures throughout the country inspected regularly.
The second bill introduced last week addresses the command structure in incidents that involve local, county, state and federal agencies.
“As the people of Paulsboro were struggling for answers, it became clear the old axiom ‘when everyone is in charge, no one is in charge,’” Andrews said.
The legislation will require the President or his designee to designate a Federal Incident Commander any time the federal government gets involved in an accident or situation like last November’s train derailment.
“It will be the job of that Federal Incident Commander to deal with the state and local authorities as to who is in charge of what,” Andrews said.
Congressman Andrews announced these new initiatives on the lawn of Gary and Rae Lynn Stevenson. The couple, who live within 100 feet of the bridge, were the first on the scene that morning and the first to call 9-1-1 to report it. Gary Stevenson is also a council member in the borough and the town’s volunteer fire department’s assistant chief.
The two look forward to seeing new legislation put some regulation on the freight industry that runs through their back yard.
“This is not the only incident that’s happened,” Gary Stevenson said. “We can’t allow this to happen again anywhere in the country. This is certainly an industry you can’t let self regulate.”
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3 of Paulsboro) agreed.
“These are measures that will bring an additional set of eyes,” he said.