As angry residents protested outside Norfolk Southern Corporations (NSC) ethanol transfer facility, city officials this week addressed the next steps in combating its presence. The protests come after a communication mishap allowed NSC to operate the potentially deadly facility without the citys blessing or the capability to combat an ethanol fire.
The city and concerned residents have appealed to the federal government Congressional and Senatorial delegates and the Safety Transportation Board (STB) in hopes of ousting the corporation, which legally operates the facility.
For those who want the facility gone, the means do not seem to matter.
I dont care how, President of the Cameron Station Civic Association Ingrid Sanden said at the protest. I just want them gone.
Were going to hit the street and were going hit the courts and were going to hit the Capitol, Councilman Ludwig Gaines said at the protest. Were going to go at them at all angles.
Last Friday Sen. John Warner (D-VA) and Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) wrote Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Michael Chertoff to request a threat analysis of the ethanol station. On Monday, the House Appropriations committee adopted language regarding possible security vulnerabilities the Alexandria ethanol station and others around the country pose, directing DHS to assess and the risks associated with such transloading facilities and report on the best way to handle them within 90 days.
This federal action is just one of the possibilities anti-ethanol stakeholders hope to use against the station. City Attorney Ignasio Pessoa also petitioned the STB last week, urging the federal board to look into NSCs relationship with the railroad and judge if it constitutes a legal presence in the city or if it requires a special use permit.
On a local level, City Council attempted to require another permit a haul route permit for the company, to regulate NSC truck routes and capacity while hauling the flammable fuel from the site. The permit is often used to control street noise and lessen the risk of accidents by imposing hours of operation. The city awarded NSC a one-month temporary permit.
In the meantime, on June 14, Council enacted an ordinance that altered the language of the haul route permit to include bulk materials or commodities of any type, which NSC resented because the original ordinance refers to waste materials and other contents unrelated to ethanol.
The ordinance amendment adopted June 14 removed an ambiguity in the ordinance, but did not make any substantive change in the requirement for a permit, Pessoa said.
NSC responded by filing a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court in Alexandria against the city on June 16, claiming that the company does not need the permit.
It is regrettable that the City of Alexandria has decided to take such pointed actions against Norfolk Southern, particularly after we have been a good corporate citizen in the community for over a hundred years, and after we worked with the City with regard to this facility, said David Lawson, Northfolk Southern Vice President of Industrial Products in a prepared statement. Unfortunately, we are now left with no other recourse but to take this action.
Pessoa filed a countersuit. Unlike every other business in the City, Norfolk Southern seeks unfettered discretion to select its truck routes, and the ability to expand its operation to a 24/7 schedule with no regulation by the City, he wrote in an email.
When they hit our streets, then we pass laws that protect the citizens and thats our jurisdiction, Vice Mayor Del Pepper said at the protest. We did not require of them anything we would not require of everybody else. So our position will stand up in any court that they take it to.
A court date has yet to be scheduled.
A grassroots effort
At Mondays protest demonstrators often described where they lived not by neighborhood, but by proximity to the half-mile and 1,000-foot buffers on a map depicting the area of possible disaster, produced by the fire department.
I live within a flame blast, Bo Schnur said. Half the people here could die instantly by fireball.
Such disquiet and trepidation among Cameron Sation and Summers Grove residents emerged even before the city recognized the NSC facility as a major threat. Beginning with a nudge to the city during the facilitys construction, their persistent and public outcry has led to the citys proactive efforts, culminating in the situation gaining federal attention.
They have also influenced City Council to establish the Norfolk Southern Ethanol Transloading Facility Community Monitoring Group, a watchdog group appointed by the mayor to be made up of various stakeholders from Cameron Station and Summers Grove communities, the Alexandria City Public Schools, the West End Business Association, the Eisenhower Partnership, two members of City Council and city staff.
We think all options are on the table legislative, legal, a public relations battle all of them; because [NSC] hasnt been forthcoming with us, Sanden said.
The City will act to protect the health and safety of the citys residents from any dangers posed by this operation, Mayor Bill Euille said. This community group is essential for discussing and monitoring activities at the Norfolk Southern facility.
The group will be a liaison between the city and the community to keep all parties informed on any developments.