When news broke in May that a giant ethanol-shipping corporation called Norfolk Southern had set up shop in the residential environs of Cameron Station, Summers Grove and Samuel Tucker Elementary School, every one asked, Whos to blame? and How can this be prevented in the future?
The industrial company that transfers more than 400,000 gallons a day of highly flammable ethanol from railcars to tanker trucks never had the citys blessing. Not one member of the City Council, including Mayor Bill Euille, knew about the companys potentially dangerous operations until about a month after they began.
City staff members were aware of the companys intentions but never informed members of Council because they believed the city could oust the unwanted neighbor. The Alexandria Fire Department was unequipped and untrained to handle a disaster should one have occurred.
It took a public outcry to instigate the citys clear and overarching response to Norfolk Southern: Get out of town. But it was too late; the city could not require the companys exodus because of federal laws that seemed at first equivocal but later a deflating reality. As part of the public outcry, headed by the Cameron Station Civic Association, the city released about 2,500 internal emails and independent consultants were brought in to perform an independent inquiry, released to the public Saturday, to find out what went wrong.
Im glad that the information is out there, Im just really curious to see how Council responds to all this, said Ingrid Sanden, president of the Cameron Station Civic Association. I really hope that people understand [the inquiry] is important. Not just for Cameron Station, not just for the West End, but for the whole city because it really impacts the kind of services we receive, the kind of communications we get and how the city operates for the people.
The review, performed by former prosecutors Steven Jansen and David LaBahn, critiques various city departments including the Offices of the City Manager, City Attorney, Planning and Zoning, Transportation&Environmental Services, the Fire Department and Building and Fire Code Administration. The deficiencies focused predominately on the Offices of the City Manager and City Attorney, stemming not from inappropriate action but mostly inaction on the part of staff members, according to the review.
Deficiencies identified during the commissioned time period were revealed as a lack of ownership with potential issues, diffused responsibility, lack of accountability, lack of communication, information sharing, and a tendency to not share critical information in a timely manner due to an excessive desire to answer all possible questions and provide solutions to Council, the review stated about the city managers office.
The report indicates five major instances in which city staff had ideal opportunities to inform Council of the corporations intentions leading up to April 9, 2008, when Norfolk Southern began operations. On Jan. 2, 2008, Deputy City Manager Michele Evans asked Fire Chief Adam Thiel to discontinue conversations with Norfolk Southern about fire protection and hazardous material preparedness until we have determined the status of this, according to released emails. At the time, Evans was under the impression that Norfolk Southern needed the citys permission to operate even though Thiel informed Evans that the company planned to start operations in April or May. Evans asked City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa to look into the legal options.
Pessoa, who has since announced his retirement to pursue educational opportunities, was under the impression that the city had preemptive legal capabilities as well, until reading a decision from the federal Surface Transportation Board that negated the citys authority. This discovery took place five days before ethanol transloading began. Council remained unaware.
The period from January to April, in which the fire department was asked to stand down, would have been a crucial time for staff to inform the mayor and Council so that the city could secure the equipment necessary to fight an ethanol fire or spill. Instead, the fire department scrambled to get the equipment and training after operations began.
The inquiry depicts the city attorneys office as having a flat organizational structure that contributed to poor oversight. We find based upon interviews and document review it is reasonable to conclude the majority, if not all, of city staff were under the perception, reliant upon the city attorneys opinion, that [Norfolk Southern] would first need a [special use permit] before ethanol transfers could begin, the review stated. This perception trickled down to city staff.
With respect to the City Attorneys Office, I regret and have apologized for not having personally notified council and the community of this matter sooner, Pessoa said in a statement. However, I do not believe that the city has suffered any legal prejudice as a result of any delay. Pessoa said also that the citys priority at the time was to prevent the issuance of a permit to the Mirant power plant that would have increased pollution, according to the review.
But the primary information contained in the review is nothing new; the consultants analyzed it, pinpointed critical points of failure and offered restructuring remedies. Still, there is little new factual information contained in the review.
The bottom line is that the report concluded that delays caused on the part of various staff or departments certainly contributed to the lack of communication timely communication both to the City Council and to the community, Mayor Bill Euille said. This was the conclusion that the Council members ourselves reached when we conducted executive session discussions with staff members.
We didnt learn anything new that we didnt already know, that resulted from this inquiry. Certainly, the results of the inquiry help provide some guidance both to the city manager and the City Council in terms of improving how we do business.
The consultants recommended the city restructure some of its policies to prevent oversight in the future. The review suggests establishing guidelines to document any meeting with an outside industry, a policy to monitor special issues and procedures within the city managers and city attorneys office in which legal opinions are released in a timely manner. The report also stressed delegating ownership of crucial issues throughout the city and taking a leading role in community outreach.
Sanden said she is more interested in fixing the issue than playing the blame game. Some people could look at this report and say, everybody in the city managers office should be fired; everybody in the city attorneys office should be fired, she said. Its not about that. There are enough problems and they are wide ranging enough that some serious time needs to be spent on organizational structure within the city. Im interested to see what council does on this report.
Mayor Euille said the city will take the reviews results into consideration after the New Year.