Action News confronts Conrail on secret Paulsboro payouts

PHILADELPHIA - February 19, 2013

Emergency responders evacuated parts of Paulsboro. But other residents were left behind, told to close their windows and take shelter inside.

"I had a funny feeling about the stuff in the air. I knew it was stuff that could kill you," said resident Charles Ward, who lives about 12 blocks away from the crash site.

As Conrail started to clean up the chemical spill, rumors about cash payouts started spreading.

"It sounds kind of strange that they are going to give everybody $500 to be quiet, I guess," Ward said.

Like dozens of other residents we observed, Ward went to the Family Assistance Center to file a claim and listened as a Conrail representative promised him cash to sign papers.

"By signing this release you are forever barred from bringing a lawsuit or any claim against any of the companies or individuals listed on the release for any reason," a Conrail representative can be heard saying in an undercover video, after a concerned resident agreed to take our hidden camera inside to document the process on tape.

"Giving up the right to be a part of the class action lawsuit means that you're giving up the potential to receive more money than your offered settlement payment," the representative said.

They were offered various amounts of money.

"The railroad is offering you $650," the representative told the resident.

Those affected were told they could sign the papers now or they could risk losing a chance at money in the future.

"If I sign this and I was to get cancer, what would happen?" the resident said.

The Conrail representative responded by saying, "Well first of all, they would have to prove it was caused by the derailment, and how are they going to prove that?"

Residents were told they couldn't have a copy of the confidential agreement, but Action News got one. The contract releases the company of any liability for the incident, including unknown injuries spanning from brain damage, dementia, cancer, and even death.

Action News spoke with Dr. Ray Panettieri, a toxicologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

"We find extensive studies showing that [vinyl chloride] affects the liver and it affects the liver in inducing cancer, a very particular cancer called angiosarcoma," Dr. Panettieri said.

Resident Kristi Kidd and Dawn Emerson both refused the money, concerned about any illnesses they could suffer in the weeks, months, and years to come.

"I am not willing to give away my life for $500," Emerson said.

We approached Conrail representatives about the contract, but they would not comment - only saying, "Would you leave, please?" and "I'm going to call the police."

Charles Ward says he tried to return the checks, but says the company refused.

"I called them back the next day and asked if I brought the two checks back can I get the paperwork, and they just hung up on me again. They said they won't accept the checks back," Ward said.

Once residents sign that paperwork, Conrail says they're bound to that agreement.

The company did contact Action News later and sent a written statement saying:

The claims process is designed to address claims fairly and promptly and with finality...We will continue to assist Paulsboro residents and businesses through this process. This is an important step in Conrail's commitment to the Paulsboro community.

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