Our View


The city cannot regulate the transportation of highly flammable ethanol from Alexandrias West End to points across the region. The U.S. Court of Appeals says so. 

Never mind that the Norfolk Southern ethanol shipping facility and its contracted tanker trucks operate just a hopscotch game away from Tucker Elementary School, the Van Dorn Metro Station, two dense housing developments and the Capitol Beltway. The business and its commercial activities are protected under federal law.

Handed down last Wednesday, the decision, which upholds a previous U.S. District Court verdict, states that the city government has no say when it comes to the route tanker trucks use while driving through the city loaded with ethanol, because federal interstate commerce laws and the Supremacy Clause preempt the municipal governments restrictive permits. 

The facility transfers more than 400,000 gallons of potentially explosive ethanol a day.

The citys attempt to force the permit on NSC (which never obliged) was a small bandage placed over a large wound. Following an embarrassing gaffe of governance in 2008, when NSC plopped down in the city limits without the citys knowledge, contriving a haul permit to strangle the operation resembled shooting a speeding freight train with a pellet gun. 

Who did you think was going to win?

The decision is not surprising probably not even to the city attorney. NSC and their ethanol transfer facility are here to stay and this is acceptable because they are good corporate neighbors, right? Well, history dictates otherwise.

Last October, the facility experienced its first ethanol spill, a relatively small one. Workers did not call the Alexandria Fire Department. They opted to call the Virginia Department of Emergency Management based in Richmond, their closest office 17 miles away in Woodbridge which finally notified the AFD more than two hours after the spill. We generally prefer that people call us and let us decide whether its an emergency or not, Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel said at the time. We dont know if it constituted an emergency or not because we didnt find out about it until well after it happened. 

In 2008, the companys poor communication with the city government (matched only by the governments poor internal communication about the facilitys presence) led to the facilitys operation without the fire departments ability to fight an ethanol fire. Alexandria residents were sitting ducks. 
NSCs past omissions and the courts recent decision equate to necessary caution on the part of residents. We know the company is not running their daily operation like an unlicensed teenage SUV driver; they follow local and federal safety requirements. But if the BP oil spill has taught us anything, its that (perceived) precautions do not negate disasters. In fact, they may contribute to them. 

Until someone approaches the potentially explosive dilemma from a human standpoint and not from a strictly commercial perspective, the city and its residents will have to rely on and trust a corporation that has given them little reason to do so up to this point.