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NJ residents go home after toxic chemicals cleared

Derailed freight train cars sit semi-submerged in the waters of Mantua Creek after a train crash, in Paulsboro, New Jersey, in this November
Derailed freight train cars sit semi-submerged in the waters of Mantua Creek after a train crash, in Paulsboro, New Jersey, in this November

By Dave Warner

PAULSBORO, New Jersey (Reuters) - Residents of New Jersey evacuated after a freight train derailment last week spewed toxic vinyl chloride began returning home on Friday as tests of the air came back clean, a Coast Guard official said.

Exactly one week after a bridge collapsed, derailing seven of the 82 Conrail freight-train cars crossing the Mantua Creek in southern New Jersey, residents who were ordered out of more than 200 homes nearest the wreck were allowed back into their homes on Friday afternoon.

Coast Guard Captain Kathy Moore said air tests in Paulsboro showed no further evidence of vinyl chloride, which had leaked from a gash in one tanker that tumbled into the waterway that feeds into the Delaware River near Philadelphia.

At the time of the wreck, authorities said 12,000 gallons (45,425 liters) of vinyl chloride had escaped.

Groups of residents were being led to their homes by law enforcement and air quality officials. The Coast Guard also offered in-home air quality checks to any resident seeking further assurance that their home is safe.

One of those set to return home Friday was Yasmen Stafford, 19, the mother of 6-month-old twin boys who has been living in a motel for the last week.

"I just want to get settled back in and get back to my regular routine," said Stafford as she waited at the Paulsboro volunteer fire department for an escort by a police officer and air quality specialist.

Koren Warrington, 39, who has also been living in a nearby hotel, confessed she was a "little nervous" about returning home, fearing her home would smell of toxic chemicals.

Paulsboro Mayor Jeff Hamilton said 680 people from some 204 houses had been evacuated after the train crash. He said he knew of nobody that has reported an air quality problem upon returning home.

Vinyl chloride is a highly toxic and flammable industrial chemical. Exposure to it can cause respiratory problems, coughing and light-headedness, said Lawrence Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The failed rail-bridge is near both residential and commercial sections of the town of 6,100 people, which is also home to two oil refineries as well as chemical plants.

Conrail is jointly owned by rail operators CSX Corp and Norfolk Southern Corp.

(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Todd Eastham and Leslie Adler)

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