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NJ derailment evacuations curtailed, tests offered

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GEOFF MULVIHILL | December 7, 2012 04:25 PM EST | AP

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PAULSBORO, N.J. — A week after a train derailment released a hazardous gas into the air in New Jersey, most residents who live nearby were heading back home Friday.

Officials said that as of noon, air monitors had not detected any vinyl chloride for more than 24 hours, showing it was safe to end mandatory evacuations in Paulsboro, an industrial town across the Delaware River from Philadelphia International Airport.

Residents were being allowed back only after checking in with authorities at the town's fire hall. They were accompanied by police officers to their homes, which remained behind barricades to keep nonresidents away.

Most were following officials' advice and letting experts test the air inside before moving back in.

By late afternoon, no homes had any evidence of the chemical, an ingredient in the plastic PVC, in the air.

Conrail, the owner of the track, paid for hotel rooms and other expenses for many of the people who live in the 240 evacuated homes.

Ellen Alexander, a retiree, said she was put up in a hotel in one town while her 90-year-old mother, who lives with her, landed a spot in a nursing home in another town.

Alexander, who lives about a block from the spill, said she initially was told she could return in three days. When the evacuation stretched to a week, she had to get more clothes, which she said Conrail paid for.

While some residents complained about mixed messages about the evacuation orders, she said it went smoothly for her under the circumstances. "Everything I asked," she said, "they did."

The evacuations came in stages starting soon after seven train cars derailed on a movable bridge in town on Nov. 30. Dozens of people who work or live nearby went to emergency rooms, but none were found to have any serious health problems because of the gas.

Also on Friday, the National Transportation Safety Board said it had completed the on-the-scene part of its investigation and left Paulsboro. A preliminary report on findings was expected in about two weeks.

A giant crane was being put into place to remove the ruptured tanker car and four others. It was not clear when they would be removed.