Toxic gas release inspired NJ mom to become environmental activist

Saturday, March 1, 2014

LAKEWOOD - Trisha Sheehan, the mother of two boys ages 3 and 7, became emotional as she recounted the story of how her family became sickened after a Conrail train derailed Nov. 30, 2012, in Paulsboro and 20,000 gallons of toxic vinyl chloride gas was released into the air.

"We were considered to be in the safe zone, but later learned that the testing equipment was faulty," said Sheehan, who lived just blocks away from the safe zone near a stream in Woodbury, and recalled that she, her husband and sons began vomiting, had head pain, watery eyes and sore throats over the next several days.

That experience pushed her into activism, and she started a New Jersey chapter of Moms Clean Air Force, a community of parents fighting air pollution to protect the health of their children.

She was among the panelists talking about ways to engage new people in activism at the Clean Water Action's 28th annual Conference Saturday at Georgian Court University.

Jill R. Unger, office manager of Clean Water Action, said she was drawn to activism because she had "the misfortune" of growing up in Toms River, a community that had beautiful wetlands and beaches, as well as erosion, over-development and two Superfund sites and is located in the shadow of the Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station.

"I became very aware of the environment at a young age because our mothers were told to drink bottled water, and I knew classmates who had young siblings or cousins with rare forms of cancer," she said.

Tirza S. Wahrman, a new member of Clean Water Action's board of director and a lawyer who worked in the environmental compliance section of the state Attorney General's Office from 2002 to 2012, talked about the saga of two Superfund sites, the Passaic River in New Jersey and the Hudson River in New York.

She noted that the Hudson, which is contaminated with PCBs dumped by General Electric, has gotten more attention and money toward its cleanup than the Passaic, which is contaminated mostly by Agent Orange waste dumped by Diamond Shamrock, its successors, and others.

Blanche Krubner, of Jackson, a trustee of the Pinelands Preservation Alliance, suggested people get involved by attending public meetings, run for office, or even a slot on the county political committees.

Janet Tauro, chair of Clean Water Action New Jersey's board of directors, said the strength of any organization is in its membership and that is why the group has been successful in many of its efforts, including stopping the proposed pipeline through the Pinelands and defeating construction of an incinerator in Newark.

"We need to keep recruiting more members and stay involved," she said.