Fifteen first responders filed a lawsuit Wednesday claiming Conrail knew about, but did not disclose, the dangers of a chemical released after a train derailment last year.The Nov. 30 accident in Paulsboro has become a magnet for lawsuits against the railroad. Lawyers say more than 250 plaintiffs have filed suits so far and more are preparing cases.

One tanker car was ruptured in the derailment, releasing more than 100,000 pounds vinyl chloride into the air. Exposure to the gas has been linked to a variety of health problems, from difficulty breathing to liver cancer.

The latest filing is notable because it draws on information made public last month at a National Transportation Safety Board hearing in which board members criticized the reaction to the spill. Evacuations were ordered, then canceled and re-ordered; a command post was set up near the spill at first; and emergency workers went without protective equipment initially.

In the complaint, the first-responders -- many of them police officers in Paulsboro -- said Conrail officials were telling them that the gas was "not that toxic" even as the company pulled its own workers from the scene and air monitors showed dangerous levels of the gas.

"They never told people how serious their exposure was," lawyer Mark Cuker said Wednesday.

Drew Bain, a firefighter in neighboring East Greenwich Township, said he spent about 24 hours at the accident scene -- much of it spraying a chemical on the tanker car to try to suppress the gas -- before he was provided with protective equipment.

He said he has had a cough and headaches since then and is being tested for more serious health problems.

Bain and the other plaintiffs are asking Philadelphia-based Conrail to pay for health monitoring and to compensate them for health problems that have started or been worsened from the exposure. Lawyers say no deaths have been linked to the exposure and that the most serious potential problems, such as cancer, could take years to develop.

Conrail spokesman Michael Hotra said the company will respond in court. The company has already asked a judge to dismiss other lawsuits, arguing that plaintiffs -- including six state troopers -- cannot pinpoint how they were hurt.


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