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New Jersey derailment: How safe are hazmat rail shipments? (+video)

The New Jersey derailment on Friday sent tank cars carrying toxic vinyl chloride off a collapsed bridge and into a creek, reviving safety concerns. But hazmat rail accidents are down.

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A derailment that caused a spill of toxic and highly flammable gas from at least one of several tank cars that toppled off a New Jersey bridge and into a creek, has raised concerns about rail shipments of hazardous chemicals through the nation's cities and highly populated areas.

In the immediate aftermath, New Jersey authorities blamed a bridge failure for sending seven train cars plunging into Mantua Creek, according local news reports. At least four of the tank cars containing toxic vinyl chloride fell from the collapsed bridge into the creek, the South Jersey Times reported.

Just one of the cars leaked vinyl chloride, which eventually dissipated into the air, state officials told the Associated Press. But some 20 people were reportedly affected by the vapor from the wreck with nearby residents evacuated and schools locked down.

It was a sharp reminder of years gone by, when the threat of tank cars carrying toxic chemicals through urban communities was a top concern.

After 9/11, federal authorities and Congress highlighted the threat from rail cars carrying chlorine, ammonia, other toxic gases, as well as explosives, traveling through densely populated areas. The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2002 warned that Al Qaeda might be planning to attack US trains, either to derail them or to blow up hazardous material-laden tank cars.

The cause was also joined by environmental groups and activists who, among other things, famously photographed a tank car carrying chlorine with the nation's Capitol building in the background. That began a push to get such shipments detoured around metropolitan areas and heavily populated areas.

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