Living with a noxious neighbor?

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For seven weeks, residents in the West Ends Cameron Station neighborhood have been living next-door to a neighbor that residents see as potentially toxic.

Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC), a holding company for the Norfolk Southern Railway, has been legally transferring thousands of gallons of ethanol fuel a stones throw away from an elementary school, a Metro station, the Beltway and one of the densest neighborhoods in the city, since April 9. 

Mayor William D. Euille and city council members were not informed of the activity until after the company had began operations on the federally protected land on Metro Road, near Eisenhower Avenue. However, other city staff, including the fire department and city attorney, had previous interaction with NSC.

It appears that certain members of staff and departments had knowledge about ongoing activities and actions on the part of Norfolk Southern, Euille said. But yet not one member of the staff gave any notice to City Council, let alone me, as the mayor, [about] what was happening and what was about to happen until a couple weeks ago It just shows that somewhere along the line there was some very bad miscommunication.

Though talks between the city and NSC took place as far back as 2006 when the city urged against the facility, no official action took place until concerned residents prompted City Manager James Hartmann to release a memo on May 15 outlining the situation.

The facility transports approximately 464,000 gallons of liquid ethanol a day, from railroad tanker cars to tanker trucks, according to a presentation by Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel and a city memo. The station meets state safety requirements, but the citys already underfunded fire department lacks the full necessities to deal with an emergency scenario involving the highly flammable fuel, according to Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel.

We are constantly trying to provide basic service with city resources, Thiel said. Thiel said that an emergency scenario involving the transloading station an ethanol leak, spill or fire    is well beyond the basic service currently backed by the city.

Ethanol has a wide range of flammability higher than gasoline when introduced to an ignition source.

Its not an explosive per se, Thiel said. But you could envision a scenario where regardless of what we call it, and whether it was technically an explosion, you would have a very large fire with fairly significant consequences.

But unlike gasoline fires that can be extinguished with water, ethanol fires require specialized equipment and a foam extinguisher. NSC agreed to reimburse the city for a foam firefighting trailer, delivered on Tuesday, more than a month after NSC began transferring ethanol.

Mindy Lyle, a Cameron Station Civic Association board member, said she is concerned that Samuel Tucker Elementary school and the Cameron Station townhouses are just hundreds of feet away from the potential hazard. Having complained to city officials when construction first began at the site, she is even more concerned that the city was uninformed of the goings on.

People are mad because we started acting when construction started, Lyle said. We started asking questions and contacting national organizations to get pressure put on it that way. Nothing.

NSC employees first approached the city in June 2006 about using the land, already owned by the corporation. City officials turned them away, citing that the city had zoning jurisdiction of the property. Concerned about the hazard, officials ordered NSC to apply for a special use permit and open communication with the community if they planned to commence such an operation in an urban area.

According to Euille, NSC would not commit to community meetings, and still has not done so.

In November 2007, after more than a year of silence between the parties, we first became aware that they were going to proceed with this without coming to the city and getting the public regulatory approval that we had said they needed, City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa said.

Pessoa was not expecting the federal Surface Transportation Board (STB) to decide just this February that local jurisdictions have no right to deny corporations contracted with railroads, which are federally protected. Operations had already commenced by then, though some officials remained unaware.

In January [2008] it was clear that they were seriously going forward, Pessoa said. It was the beginning of April by the time we reviewed it and determined in fact that we could not impose the [special use permit requirement].

NSC had also met with the fire department, though unknown to elected officials.

In August of 2006, after NSCs initial approach, NSC representatives met with the Alexandria Fire Department to discuss safety equipment necessary for the companys endeavor, according Doug McNeil, director of distribution services for NSC. McNeil said that specifications were discussed regarding leak and spill equipment, a tow vehicle and a foam firefighting trailer, crucial to fighting an ethanol fire.

It might take a minute to acknowledge the work that Chief Thiels done in outfitting Alexandria with the best ethanol firefighting ability in the Beltway area, McNeil said.

These discussions took place in 2006 but the foam firefighting trailer did not arrive until Tuesday, May 28, following another meeting in late April of this year, after NSC had already commenced its operation.

Euille condemned both city staff and NSC officials for their irresponsibility in allowing such a hazard to operate so close to the school and the townhouse community without notifying them outright. And although it is technically legal for NSC to occupy the area, he questioned their motives.

When we choose sights for these kinds of developments its primarily based on the total logistics, economics, the cost of trucking the product as well as the land use land that we already own issues like that, McNeil said. So we look the total investment cost from our perspective.

On Wednesday, Euille said that he met with key players to talk about future options, though NSC officials have not agreed to a community meeting. While the city can enforce traditional health and safety codes, Euille said that their best options are to engage the community through open meetings, contact Congressional delegates and raise the matter with the Department of Homeland Security.

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