By Derrick Perkins
Norfolk Southern’s request for state permission to expand its West End ethanol facility drew the ire of city councilors earlier this week, but officials admitted blocking the transportation giant would prove difficult.
City councilors issued a strongly worded resolution during their Tuesday meeting, objecting to Norfolk Southern’s bid to increase the scope of operations at the South Van Dorn Street facility. They caught wind of the plans May 3 — after the state Department of Environmental Quality alerted them to the company’s pending air permit.
If Richmond gives Norfolk Southern the green light, the company could more than double its operation, unloading highly flammable ethanol from as many as 30 railcars a day.
“The intent of the resolution is not to ask for Norfolk Southern’s demise or for the transloading operation’s [demise],” said Mayor Bill Euille. “It’s really suggesting [that] they slow down the train and that we have additional dialogue.”
Still, Euille made good on his pledge to direct City Attorney Jim Banks to explore any other avenues for preventing Norfolk Southern’s expansion. Officials also asked Richmond to hold public hearings for the air permit within city limits.
But other than lodging a formal protest, local authorities have few options available, warned City Manager Rashad Young. Describing Norfolk Southern’s request as “relatively minor” in the eyes of the state, Young said convincing Richmond to derail the proposal will be “an uphill battle.”
City Councilor Tim Lovain agreed with Young’s assessment.
“First of all, it’s bad news for our city like it was the first time … and although I support exploring whether there might be other means to prevent expansion, I’m deeply pessimistic,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see the city spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees on a case like this.”
Norfolk Southern’s ethanol operation has rankled officials and neighbors since it began in 2008. Located near Cameron Station and Samuel Tucker Elementary School, the facility has been criticized as a source of noise and potential safety risk.
Several spills have occurred since the company began offloading ethanol from railcars, and a lack of notice from Norfolk Southern in the past has irked public safety officials. Though city councilors pressed Fire Chief Adam Thiel on his department’s readiness should Norfolk Southern increase activity, he declined to speculate until more information was known.
“We’re still trying to understand the impact of their operational proposal,” Thiel said. “Until we have had [a] meeting and understand their proposal — the technical details of their proposal — I’m not entirely sure what the impact will be on us.”
Though city lawmakers pledged to continue fighting the potential expansion, company spokesman Robin Chapman reiterated Norfolk Southern has not decided whether or not to upgrade the facility.
“It depends on the market,” he said. “It’s up in the air.”
Chapman would not comment on the company’s decision to keep city officials in the dark while seeking the state’s permission for expansion.
City Councilor Paul Smedberg took a dim view on the communication failure.
“I can’t believe, given what we had gone through all those years ago, they’d be so politically tone deaf as to not approach the city,” he said.