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3News Investigates: 2012 New Jersey train derailment provides insight for future in East Palestine

Paulsboro, New Jersey is a small town, much like East Palestine. A train carrying the same toxic chemical derailed there in 2012.

PAULSBORO, N.J. — If you are looking to find clues to what the future in East Palestine will hold after last month's train derailment, perhaps look no further than the small New Jersey town of Paulsboro. 

In 2012, Paulsboro, which is near Philadelphia, had a Conrail train derail over a problematic swing bridge. The derailment sent 100,000 pounds of vinyl chloride into a creek, cloaking the area in a dense, toxic fog. 

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Paulsboro Mayor Gary Stevenson lives right next to the rail line. He remembers his whole house "just shook like a huge earthquake" when the crash took place.

"When I walked down there, I was totally unprepared for what I saw," he recalls. "There were multiple train cars in the water and a few more cars teetering, getting ready to fall in. And then, the big cloud. Then, in a few minutes, you couldn't see anything." 

Stevenson, who was deputy fire chief at the time, says they had no idea what the train was hauling. You couldn't see the words "vinyl chloride" on the tankers. 

First responders could be seen standing in the carcinogenic cloud, with the breached tanker just yards away. 

Days passed before people in the area were ordered to evacuate. 

Paulsboro resident Karen Armistead still worries about her and her daughter's health more than a decade later. She remembers hearing similar messages then to what residents in East Palestine are being told today.

"People were saying they were falling out, they weren't feeling well. But they're telling us the air is clean and the water's okay," she says.

Armistead is among some 2,000 residents who sued Conrail. The cases have since been dismissed or settled for anywhere between hundreds to a few thousand dollars. 

Years later, Stevenson says he has begun to have breathing problems, which he blames on the chemical exposure. 

"The doctors said, 'Well look Gary, you probably won't see it the first seven or ten years, but you'll start seeing it afterward.' And guess what? He was right," Stevenson adds.

Just like Norfolk Southern in East Palestine, Conrail offered Paulsboro residents money for their inconvenience. 

More than a decade later, the news crews are gone from Paulsboro. So are the federal and state officials who assured residents that the air and water are safe. 

Residents wonder if the damage is already done.

"If this train didn't happen in Ohio, we'd still be forgotten," Stevenson says. "No one has ever come back to us and said, 'let's retest your systems, let's retest you, mayor. Let's see what's going on.' Nothing."

Their message to East Palestine is don't be forgotten and continue to fight for support.

"They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease. They gonna have to keep squeaking," advises Armistead.

Because the town's future is in their own hands. 

One impact that Paulsboro did not foresee? The impact on its economy. The stigma of the toxic derailment kept visitors away, thinking the water and ground were contaminated. A number of restaurants and shops closed. 

Mayor Stevenson said it took a few years for the town to recover. 

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