Meeting at the crossroads

Meeting at the crossroads

City officials, residents and Norfolk Southern Corporation (NSC) representatives gathered Monday at Samuel Tucker Elementary School for a public hearing on the corporations ethanol transfer operation that has outraged nearby West End residents and school stakeholders alike. 

Fire Chief Adam Thiel presented the same safety preparedness presentation he gave to the City Council two weeks ago after council members were informed that the potentially dangerous station, owned by NSC, had been operating for more than a month without their knowledge.

Though residents consternation with both city officials and NSC representatives was palpable, the hearing was to deal with the problem at hand evacuation, prevention and response rather than the incongruous timeline of events and communications between the city and NSC that led to the stations under-the-radar existence.

I know there are many sides to the story, said Ingrid Sanden, president of the Cameron Station Civic Association. But we are not here to hash out these issuesbut [to find out] what we are to do in the event of an emergency.

Im here because I want to find out what were up against, said School Board Vice Chairman Charles Wilson, who lives in the area. My main concern is the children. I will ask my board to ensure that we have a viable plan if [the facility] isnt moved.

Thiel presented a map encompassing the areas that emergency response teams would consider isolating or evacuating in case of a leak, spill or fire the most credible scenarios according to the fire chief.

According to the map, the effects of a large ethanol spill (one tanker losing all of its 29,000 gallons of E-95, ethanol mixed with five percent gasoline) could encompass a 1,000-foot radius around the scene of the spill, possibly including Tucker Elementary, townhouses and Van Dorn Metro Station depending on the spills location. A fire could encompass an area up to one half of a mile radius from its spark point.

But Thiel emphasized the fickle nature of predicting any disaster whose magnitude depends on unpredictable variables like weather, time of day and topography, noting that at any given day there are thousands of different chemicals being transported through the region that pose threats, and inherent to the AFDs job is reacting to unpredictable disasters that occur in seconds. Whether an evacuation is necessary depends on such unpredictable variables.

You could absolutely think of a scenario where our capabilities can be exhausted, Thiel said. Its so difficult to evacuate because of all the possible variables.

An explosion with this productis not really one of the credible scenarios were worried about. It is possible though. All we can do is basically respond and react because we have no other choice.

Thiel added that the citys capability to fight an ethanol-related disaster is the most robust in the region thanks to NSCs contribution of specialized equipment and a regional hazardous material response team that would activate during an emergency, much like Alexandria firefighters responded to the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.

While some firefighters have been trained to use the new equipment, more will be trained later this month and in July, during an on-site simulation with Arlington and Fairfax County emergency responders.

As for Tucker Elementary School students and staff, an updated evacuation route was briefly discussed by Assistant Superintendent John Porter, who said that though the chance of a disaster is relatively small, its an important matter for the city.

Porter briefly described a short-term evacuation plan for Tucker Elementary School students and staff that included exiting the building at the far side of the NSC facility, walking through gaps between houses, then negotiating a fence with bolt cutters or a key of some sort. Once through the fence, evacuees would gather at Picket Street shopping center and await busses to take them to Hammond Middle School.

Have you all ever tried to get 600 students through those fence holes? one resident asked. Porter responded that they have not, but that the plan is in place in case it is necessary.

The evacuation route is a short-term plan. Classes end June 19, and a long-term plan is in the works for when they return July 28. Evacuations depend on the disasters severity, and Thiel said that ideally, residents would employ the shelter in place procedure while responders isolate any affected area unless an evacuation were necessary.

Mayor Bill Euille reiterated his disapproval of the facility. Norfolk Southern should cease and desist operation immediately, he said. Council is looking into an injunction, but the city currently has no jurisdiction over NSCs facility because of the Surface Transportation Boards ruling that exempts railroad contractors from local zoning laws.

David Lawson, NSC vice president of industrial products fielded questions from the crowd, discussing everything from the companys moral obligations to a 2006 spill in which 20 train cars derailed and released ethanol in New Brighton, Pa. The company was at fault, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which said that their track inspection was inadequate, although Lawson said his company will review the findings against them.

Said Lawson about the lacking communication between NSC and the city, I think there was a mutual responsibility. In terms of what we have today its a safe place. And we tend to make it safer.

When a reporter asked if he would live near the ethanol transfer facility, Lawson responded, Knowing what I know, I would.