Ethanol is an alternative fuel fermented from corn, grains or agricultural waste and is used primarily as a supplement to gasoline. It is clean burning, renewable and in your gas tank. It is also in our backyard.
In Alexandria, Norfolk Southern Corporation has a transloading facility, a station where the chemical is transferred from rail cars to tanker trucks, in the west end of town near Cameron Station and Samuel Tucker Elementary School.
Its a five iron from Tucker School, said Deputy City Attorney Chris Spera at a meeting of Agenda: Alexandria Monday evening. The nonprofit organization holds a monthly meeting in which residents and experts on given subjects affecting the community hold open discussions. Mondays meeting was entitled Ethanol and Emissions: Too Toxic for Alexandria?
Agenda: Alexandria invited Spera, along with Special Assistant to the City Manager Steve Mason and Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel, to address the volatile subject of the ethanol transloading facility and why it is in residents backyard.
Ethanol arrives by rail car at the facility and is transferred to tanker trucks. One track holds 20 tank cars, which each car holding 29,000 gallons of the product.
The emergency scenarios are leaks, spills and fires, Thiel said. The trucks leaving the facility are the concern point.
There are tailored evacuation plans in place for Cameron Station and Tucker Elementary, which just had a practice run January 26.
Mason presented a truncated timeline of the facilitys existence, which sparked outrage when it began operations without the citys blessing.
We thought they needed a special use permit to operate a transloading facility, Mason said. They did not.
The controversy was well-documented, with the city eventually undergoing an independent review. But the Agenda: Alexandria meeting allowed more discourse among community members.
The city made mistakes. We were caught off-guard, said Mason, We accept responsibility. We had lateral communication and no system for communication going up the chain.
When asked about the level of risk at the transloading plant, Thiel said this was a big question that is dependant on many factors. Risk is a moving target. A half million gallons of E-95 is a higher risk than not but the good news is that we know what and how much is there.
Attendees were reminded that this is not the only concern point for dangerous materials passing through the city. CSX carries thousands of rail cars through the city every year filled with ethanol and other unknown substances.
Regarding the legal efforts, the city is looking towards zoning and land use.
There are four things we are looking to do, Spera said. The city believes that we have the ability to regulate land use. Norfolk Southern does not.
The federal Surface Transportation Board was asked to rule on the issue of rail-by right versus special use permit. Our position is that unloading is different, said Spera.
On the non-land use side, the city is looking at the haul-route process and the ability to set proscribed routes. Norfolk Southern sees the loaded trucks as an extension of rail use and says we cannot regulate the truck routes. This issue was brought before Judge James Cacharis in Eastern District Federal Court on December 18, 2008, and a decision is expected in February.
Also in the works would be a federal legislation process, depending on the outcome from the Surface Transportation Board and Cachariss ruling. The city would be asking for testimony to be taken on whether a company like Norfolk Southern can put such a facility where they want or if the city can proscribe such usage, and if they can impose fees and regulate aspects of the haul-route.