Researcher to study Graniteville health


 With the help of a nearly $3 million federal grant, a South Carolina researcher is beginning to study the long-term health effects of a deadly train wreck and chemical spill in Aiken County in 2005.

University of South Carolina researcher Erik Svendsen said today the grant from the National Institute of Health will help him and his team study the long-term effects specifically of millworkers injured in the Graniteville crash.

Svendsen's project, which is called the Graniteville Recovery and Chlorine Epidemiology, or GRACE, study, officially kicks off Saturday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at his headquarters, set up in downtown Graniteville, and free lung screenings and blood pressure tests for people living in the area.

Nine people died and thousands were evacuated from the area when a Norfolk Southern train car carrying chlorine ruptured and released a poisonous cloud over the mill town near the Georgia line on Jan. 6, 2005.

That cloud enveloped the Avondale Mills textile plant, corroding machinery and causing damage from which the Georgia-based company said it could never recover — despite spending more than $140 million on cleaning, repairs and damage mitigation. In 2008, Avondale Mills reached an undisclosed settlement with Norfolk Southern after seeking $420 million in damages in a lawsuit.

Over the next five years, Svendsen and his team hope to study 670 workers employed at the Avondale Mills plant at the time of the crash. Because the workers were screened regularly before the crash, Svendsen said his team will have some data available on the workers' lung health to use as comparison during their study.

"There's a good history of what their lung health was prior to 2005," Svendsen said. "The big question everyone has is, has the health of the community recovered? The very simple question that politicians want to know, that everybody wants to know is, is the community as healthy now as they were before? To do that, you have to know what their health was before."

Svendsen and his research team — in partnership with Tulane University, the University of South Carolina, the Medical University of South Carolina, Georgia Health Sciences University and the University of Georgia — hope to expand on previous research that focused on short-term effects of the spill. In 2008, Svendsen led a team of state researchers who found that more than a quarter of the people examined in the spill's aftermath suffered from serious lung problems and even more had mental health troubles.

While the current study focuses on long-term effects on the lungs, Svendsen said he has also recently received another grant to study mental health problems in the same way.

"This is just the first of several studies that are going to come out of this Graniteville disaster and hopefully turn this very negative thing into something positive for the community," Svendsen said.

Relatives of the nine people killed in the crash reached wrongful death settlements with Norfolk Southern. In 2007, a federal judge approved a settlement paying thousands of dollars to each of the nearly 480 people injured in the derailment.

The federal government has also sued the rail company under the federal Clean Water Act, arguing that Norfolk Southern was negligent by allowing chlorine and diesel fuel to seep into waterways, killing fish and plant life.