By Dana DiFilippo, New Jersey Monitor
March 22, 2023
More than 1,000 miles of rail freight lines crisscross New Jersey, with countless cars full of hazardous materials hurtling daily past homes, schools, stores, and more.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find out exactly what those cars carry and where, because both federal and state authorities don’t publicly disclose the routes trains carrying toxic substances travel.
That’s by design. Homeland Security authorities guard such information closely in the name of public safety, especially since 9/11, warning of all the ways terrorists and troublemakers could wreak havoc.
“If we make this stuff available to everybody, you know it, I know it: There’s going to be some kook out there with a gun who’s going to see a car with a certain number on it, and he’s going to take a shot at it,” said John McCreavy of the New Jersey Railroad Association.
A Federal Railroad Administration spokesman agreed that sharing such routes “raises safety and security issues.” Railroads also consider the specific rail lines on which they ship hazardous materials proprietary information, administration spokesman William Wong said.
But environmentalists who have long lobbied for more public disclosure renewed their calls in the wake of last month’s catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
“Because we have so many freight trains and railways and we’re so densely populated, we have a heightened danger here in New Jersey than in a more open or rural area,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. “If the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment had happened in New Jersey, it wouldn’t have been 4,800 or 5,000 people impacted. It would be hundreds of thousands of people.”
Wong said local government officials can ask rail carriers for lists of what hazardous materials travel through their communities to better plan emergency response, with such information shared “on a need-to-know basis.” Citizens who want to know “can ask local officials about the issue and their emergency response preparedness,” he added.
But that doesn’t work, Carluccio said.
She’s been battling unsuccessfully for more disclosure for a decade, since she began protesting the trains bringing crude oil through Philadelphia to refineries in its suburbs and South Jersey.
Her advocacy isn’t just a matter of what-if. New Jersey has averaged about four train accidents a month over the past four years, data from the Federal Railroad Administration shows.
Rail catastrophes on the scale of East Palestine may be few and far between, but major accidents have happened here. In November 2012, seven cars of an 84-car Conrail train derailed in Paulsboro when a swing bridge over Mantua Creek failed to operate, and one spewed about 23,000 gallons of vinyl chloride — the same flammable, toxic gas used to make plastic that was released when 38 cars derailed in East Palestine.
After the Paulsboro derailment, a pregnant woman approached Carluccio at the public meeting, where she spoke to educate residents about the resulting pollution in Paulsboro.
“She said, ‘After hearing you, I’m moving to my aunt’s until I give birth, and then I’ll decide if I’m going to move back.’ And that is the kind of informed decision that people have the right to make,” Carluccio said. “This information is unfairly withheld by government and by companies from the people. And it’s wrong.”
Accidents involving hazardous materials transport are most common on the nation’s highways, averaging about 223 a year over the past decade, compared to 26 a year on railways, according to data from the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
But trains transport way more hazardous materials at a time, Carluccio said.
“Of course, it’s dangerous to move hazardous materials by truck, and we certainly are very concerned about that,” she said. “But the bottom line here is that we’re talking about hazardous materials in greater quantities than one truck. We’re talking about longer and heavier trains — 180 to 200 cars on one train. If you have a derailment, you have a cascading, domino effect. There’s just no comparison in terms of the potential for catastrophe.”
The Association of American Railroads lists 18 pages of hazardous materials transported by rail around the country. In New Jersey, major commodities shipped by rail include petrochemicals like crude oil and plastic pellets, construction materials, food products, and both raw materials and finished goods for manufacturers, according to the state Department of Transportation.
If the East Palestine, Ohio, derailment had happened in New Jersey, it wouldn’t have been 4,800 or 5,000 people impacted. It would be hundreds of thousands of people. – Tracy Carluccio, Delaware Riverkeeper Network
Jeff Tittel, a longtime environmentalist in New Jersey, doesn’t buy officials’ claim that hiding hazmat routes protects against terrorism. After all, he pointed out, rail companies are required by law for emergency response purposes to label railcars carrying toxic materials with placards identifying contents as flammable, explosive, radioactive, corrosive, poisonous gas, and a whole host of other descriptors.
“The terrorists would know, because every railcar that has hazardous material has a universal ID number on it that will tell you what’s in it,” Tittel said. “All you got to do is watch a train line and you’ll see which car is carrying what. We’re using homeland security as a way to hide these things from the public, and what the public doesn’t know can hurt them.”
Tittel suspects more sinister motives in officials’ refusal to reveal more about what hazardous materials move through the state.
“The more the public knows, the more they would be outraged,” he said. “When government and businesses hide information from the public, they’re not doing the public’s business.”
Policy change needed?
In Trenton, policymakers have tried to tighten train regulations to avoid disasters like East Palestine. But efforts historically have centered on emergency preparedness and response, rather than public disclosure.
Former Sen. Loretta Weinberg introduced a bill in 2020 to require “high hazard train” operators to provide cleanup plans to state environmental authorities. It didn’t pass, but Assemblywoman Ellen Park (D-Bergen) reintroduced it last September.
Park told the New Jersey Monitor that she hopes East Palestine will spur her legislative colleagues to act on it. But she doesn’t see a need for legislation to expand public disclosure of trains’ contents.
“Anybody living near the railroad should assume that an accident could happen, whether or not the train is carrying chemicals that are toxic. That should be the basic assumption,” Park said. “But as far as having a full disclosure, real estate property could be affected, and everything around there probably would drop in price. And I don’t know about that. I don’t know how fair that is for people who live around the area, to say: ‘OK, now your properties have been devalued.’”
Carluccio has a few other ideas for legislation, though, for any policymakers leery of public disclosure. Stricter management of hazardous materials’ movement could reduce the risk and scale of accidents, such as limiting how much trains carry at a time and how far materials travel, she said.
Policymakers could also eye supply and demand, she added. Vinyl chloride — the hazardous material released in East Palestine and Paulsboro — is used to make plastic, and plastic is such an eternal, polluting substance that environmentalists have stepped up their fight against it.
“We should be questioning the entire framework that gives this nod to danger,” Carluccio said. “We’re reaching the point of no return when it comes to toxic exposure to communities.”
New Jersey Monitor is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Jersey Monitor maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Terrence McDonald for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow New Jersey Monitor on Facebook and Twitter.
Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.