WOODBURY — The Gloucester County Prosecutor’s Office has announced the funding of $150,000 for weather monitoring stations that will be able to track the direction of toxic gas released from railroad accidents, such as the vinyl chloride leak in Paulsboro in November 2012.
Knowing which way the wind is blowing, and how fast, could be crituical if a gas cloud formed over a populated area, according to the GCPO critical infrastructure coordinator Bill Donovan, who spoke at a meeting Sept. 17.
A chemical like vinyl chloride “is pretty dangerous stuff, and it goes through our neighborhoods every day,” said Donovan at the meeing of the Gloucester-Salem Security Initiative, a group formed 11 years ago to improve response to natural disasters or acts of terrorism.
Approximately 111,000 residents live within a mile of the Camden-to-Salem rail line that runs through Paulsboro, and 22 schools are in that area, Donovan said.
The Paulsboro derailment brought both shelter-in-place and evacuation orders for hundreds of residents as a gas cloud from a leaking tank car moved off the Mantua Creek and onto land, covering much of the borough.
Afterward, the state Department of Homeland Security office contacted Donovan to ask what lessons were learned and what gaps were identified. The lack of weather monitoring equipment to develop accurate “plume modeling” was a significant gap, Donovan said. Weather data was obtained from a portable station on a trailer borrowed from the Boeing Corporation.
As a result, Donovan formed a plan to place permanent weather stations along the Penns Grove line that runs from Camden City to Salem, with connections to the county 911 center. Continuous real time weather information could then be transmitted to emergency responders.
The state DHS funded the plan with a $100,000 grand and another $50,000 came from Gloucester County’s share of money allocated to the five-county Delaware River DHS region.
While weather data collection is important, “we didn’t want to get into the weather business,” said Donovan, nor was money available for yearly maintenance of the stations.
At the “11th hour” of planning, a state climatologist visited the county and mentioned there were big gaps in weather data collection in South Jersey. He offered to participate in the project, siting stations and connecting them to computer servers the state uses at Rutgers University.
“It sounded like a pretty good deal,” said Donovan
In a formal agreement now being negotiated, older state weather stations will be decommissioned and nine new units will be installed, all connected to the Rutgers University servers.
“They’ll share (data) with the public and private industry,” said Donovan. Purchase of the units and installation should be completed by early 2015.