By Dave Warner
PAULSBORO, New Jersey (Reuters) - Residents evacuated after last week's freight train derailment spewed toxic vinyl chloride began returning home on Friday as tests of the air came back clean, a Coast Guard official said.
Exactly one week after a bridge collapsed, derailing seven of the 82 Conrail freight-train cars crossing the Mantua Creek, residents who were ordered out of 148 homes nearest the wreck were allowed back into their homes on Friday afternoon.
Coast Guard Captain Kathy Moore said air tests in the south New Jersey town showed no further evidence of vinyl chloride, which had leaked from a gash in one tanker that tumbled into the waterway that feeds into the Delaware River near Philadelphia.
At the time of the wreck, authorities said 12,000 gallons (45,425 liters) of vinyl chloride had escaped.
Groups of residents were being led to their homes by law enforcement and air quality officials. The Coast Guard also offered in-home air quality checks to any resident seeking further assurance that their home is safe.
"Our priority has been and continues to be the safety of Paulsboro residents," Moore said.
Earlier in the week, residents said they were anxious to get back home after living in a series of hotels.
"I've been in tears because I want to go home," said Terri Manning, 51, who was evacuated with her husband and son from their home about 200 yards from the wreck.
"My parakeet is in the house. She's probably dead by now," said Manning, a farmers market worker who said she had spent all her cash paying for hotels and other emergency living expenses.
Vinyl chloride is a highly toxic and flammable industrial chemical. Exposure to it can cause respiratory problems, coughing and light-headedness, said Lawrence Ragonese, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The failed rail-bridge is near both 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 Todd Eastham)