What happened?


On Monday, City Hall released a chronicle of e-mail correspondence and other documents sent between various city staffers, divulging a communication failure that resulted in a highly flammable chemical, ethanol, being transferred near an elementary school and residential area without the ability to combat a potential disaster.

The transfer occurred for seven weeks without the Mayor or City Councils knowledge.

City Manager James Hartmann has publically taken responsibility for the muddled situation. However, the e-mails, dating back to June 20, 2006 when chemical transport company Norfolk Southern Corporations (NSC) first approached the city with its intentions, reflect general confusion among many high-ranking officials about whether NSCs plans to construct the transloading facility were legal, and often a lack of communication among department heads, subordinates and NSC.

Communication on the issue was dormant for about a year, between Nov. 2006 and Oct. 2007, according to the citys list of events. During the down time NSC  continued the necessary engineering design, modifications, and contractor bid specifications for their facility, which it progressed with building.

The construction occurred despite City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa rejecting the companys claim that it did not need a special use permit, referring to a decision made by the Safety Transportation Board, a federal entity.

Where you have somebody doing their own private business, thats subject to local authority, Pessoa said over the phone on Tuesday. If the transloading operation is somebody elses business, even though its operating on railroad property, then the Citys authority is intact.  Back in 2006, I thought we had a good argument that this would be an independently run fuel distribution facility, so that the Citys authority would not be preempted. Pessoa and other high-ranking city officials assumed that this was the case until April 4, 2008 just five days before NSC commenced operations.

Confusion over whether NSC was allowed to be in the city permeates the disclosed e-mails. But the real danger unknown to City Hall officials was that the city was unequipped to handle a major ethanol disaster. The lack of ethanol firefighting equipment, training and evacuation plans was not addressed until Battalion Chief Michael Farri wrote to Assistant Fire Chief Russell Middleton on Dec. 16.

As it stands right now, it appears that we do not have enough resources in place to handle a large spill if it were to occur, Farri stated in the e-mail copied to Fire Chief Adam Thiel. I believe we need to get started with [an operation] plan and try to get ahead of this before it gets put in service.

While the fire department was having internal conversations about the disaster scenarios, the city manager, city attorney and Deputy City Manager Michelle Evans and others were still under the impression that the city could require a special use permit, which would effectively oust NSC from the city.

We had no idea at the time, Evans said. In my view there was a requirement for a special use permit.

Even though the fire department braced for a disaster by discussing contingency plans, Evans told the Code Enforcement division in an e-mail to discontinue conversations with NSC. In her view the companys presence was now a legal issue one that Evans felt was being facilitated by ongoing discussions between the fire department division and NSC regarding fire hydrants and other basic safety precautions at the site.

I think before you (the Fire Department/Code Enforcement) do anything further, we need to find out what is going on, Evans stated in an email to Code Enforcement Director John Catlett and Chief Thiel. As we recall, there is a requirement for City approval in our view.  Please do not communicate with Norfolk Southern further until we have determined the status of this.

But valuable time that could have been used for safety preparedness lapsed while City Hall officials remained unaware of or unfocused on the lacking resources to respond to an ethanol fire. It took about a month for Alexandria to finally receive necessary equipment after NSC began operations. Had there been direct communication between cities departments regarding safety equipment it could have been in emergency responders hands earlier.

I can speak for myself when I say that I was not aware of the need for the special foam and equipment, Pessoa said. That clearly was something that if we had known about it or had we focused on it, the outcome would have been different.

City Hall officials were aware of the stations proximity to high-density areas as well. On Jan. 18 of this year about three months after the issue resurfaced Richard Josephson of Planning and Zoning noted in an e-mail to Pessoa that the nearest home in Summers Grove would be located approximately 110 feet from the proposed ethanol transfer operation and that the off-loading area is located approximately 300 feet from new townhouses in Cameron Station and approximately 640 feet from Samuel Tucker Elementary School.

From here on out
City officials have admitted to making numerous mistakes throughout their internal and external dealings with the NSC issue and have since discussed how to better communicate across intra-departmental lines.

Its my responsibility now to fix this, City Manager Hartmann said. It is frankly the type of case study where we can really peer into the organization and we can see much of the inadequacies of communication that occurred at a number of different levels.

There are two new items on the docket for the City Councils next regular meeting on Tuesday. One has to do with a citizens monitoring group, meant to increase communication with residents, and the other will initiate a discussion on a task force of sorts that will focus on industrial matters.

Putting one department in charge of it all is probably unrealistic, Hartmann said. But continuing to make sure that we have the appropriate organization to stay focused on it is important.

We know we have to put more focus on industrial uses anywhere in the city, but especially on the West End, and therefore part of the response is creating a body that is truly going to be assigned the responsibility to do that. And it has to be cross-departmental, but we have to manage that a lot closer. And we will. 

Getting rid of an unwanted neighbor
The city recently filed a petition with the Surface Transportation Board to oust Norfolk Southern and their ethanol transfer facility from the city and establish the citys sovereignty on the grounds that the operation of the facility is not subject to preemption because it is being operated by a private, non-rail carrier operator.

Despite the various miscommunications both internally and externally, the city was opposed to NSCs station from the onset of discussions in 2006, which led officials to attempt to slap the company with a special use permit in the first place.

We were overly confident that we could get them into an SUP process, Hartmann said. But we have a major focus going on getting this facility out of the community and were not going to relent.