By Dave Warner
CLARKSBORO, New Jersey (Reuters) - A U.S. Coast Guard official told an angry crowd on Wednesday that it may take until next week to clear the air of toxic chemicals spilled after a train wreck in their south New Jersey town, where evacuations were ramped up this week.
Elevated levels of vinyl chloride, a highly toxic and flammable industrial chemical, are low, but must get back down to zero before residents of the 148 houses evacuated in Paulsboro, New Jersey, are allowed to return to their homes, said Coast Guard Captain Kathy Moore.
"I can't say anything sooner than Sunday to get back into your houses," Moore told the estimated 500 people at a meeting at a school gymnasium in the neighboring town of Clarksboro.
Respiratory problems, coughing and light-headedness were the problems that residents exposed to the hazardous chemicals may experience, "but there is no long-term effect," said Lawrence Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"We are being very conservative because we are worried about your health," he said.
Skeptical residents shouted doubts about the assurances they heard from officials that vinyl chloride levels were low, complaining that their neighborhood now smelled like dry-cleaning chemicals and that there was a noticeable absence of birds in the sky.
Rising levels of vinyl chloride were detected by air monitors in the days after a rail bridge collapsed on Friday, derailing seven of the 82 Conrail freight-train cars crossing the Mantua Creek. The cars toppled into the waterway, which feeds into the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
A gash in one of the cars allowed the leak of more than 12,000 gallons (45,425 liters) of vinyl chloride, authorities said at the time of the wreck.
In recent days, detection of higher levels of the toxic chemical prompted the shutdown of schools on Monday and a second wave of home evacuations on Tuesday, bringing to 148 the total number of homes ordered evacuated.
The rail bridge is near the 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 and Peter Cooney)