Norfolk Southern facility expansion fuels anxiety for Alexandria officials

Norfolk Southern facility expansion fuels anxiety for Alexandria officials

By Derrick Perkins

Mayor Bill Euille blasted Norfolk Southern’s push for state approval to boost operations at its West End facility, while a company spokesman downplayed the prospects of expansion.

City officials learned about the proposal Friday and only after the state Department of Environmental Quality alerted them to the transportation giant’s request for an air permit, which is required before Norfolk Southern expands. Euille chastised the company for not approaching City Hall before seeking state approval.

“I’m concerned about the process, first of all, that they utilized, which is certainly unacceptable: not sitting down and meeting and talking to the city about their future plans,” he said. “One would like to think they would have used proper protocol on this go-around and maybe to them they did, but … they didn’t come to us directly, they went to the state.”

Though Norfolk Southern had not previously needed Richmond’s stamp of approval, more than doubling its operations at the local ethanol transfer station — unloading 30 railcars each day rather than 14 — requires the state’s blessing. Since learning of the proposal, City Manager Rashad Young requested the state Department of Environmental Quality hold public hearings in Alexandria before making a final decision.
Euille will unveil a resolution formally opposing any expansion of the facility at Tuesday’s city council meeting. He also has directed City Attorney Jim Banks to explore their legal options.

But Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapman said the company has not decided whether to increase the scope of its South Van Dorn Street facility.

“Norfolk Southern has considered the possibility of expanding the ethanol transfer facility in Alexandria should market conditions warrant but has not decided at this time to implement any such plans,” Chapman wrote in an emailed statement. “Recognizing that a state air-quality permit would be required to proceed with an expansion, the company wants to be able to act quickly to future market conditions and chose to apply to the DEQ for a permit ahead of the need.”

The dustup is the most recent in a long line of disagreements between City Hall and Norfolk Southern, stemming back to the opening of the controversial facility in 2008. Euille took the company — as well as city staff — to task at the time for keeping residents in the dark about the operation.

Located a short distance from residential neighborhoods, a Metro station and elementary school, the facility has kept officials and emergency responders on edge for years.

A little more than a year after opening, facility employees spilled around 30 gallons of highly flammable ethanol — and city officials were the last to know. Instead, Norfolk Southern reported the incident to Richmond, which in turn informed Alexandria’s emergency responders.
In September, another spill resulted in the loss of about 150 gallons. Norfolk Southern alerted local authorities but only after a lengthy delay.

The incident prompted officials to call — again — for improved lines of communication with the company.

When a spill occurred in February, which saw employees lose control of about 100 gallons, Norfolk Southern immediately contacted the city’s fire department.

“After that [September] event, we clarified that notifying us immediately meant calling 911,” said Fire Chief Adam Thiel at the time.

Despite the rocky relationship with the company, Euille is not pushing for the facility’s closure. But to Euille, who served as mayor when the station opened, this latest move brings back bad memories.

“My initial reaction [to the permit request] was that this sort of rekindles the bad vibes we experienced more than five years ago when they decided to move forward and open up without having a firm dialogue with the city and checking in and getting our blessings,” he said.