Editorial: Norfolk Southern went down the wrong track — again

Editorial: Norfolk Southern went down the wrong track — again

The imbroglio kicked up by transportation giant Norfolk Southern last week might best be summed up by the words of the Captain in “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

Once again, there’s something afoot at the company’s West End ethanol transloading facility. And once more, City Hall is the last to know about it.

Norfolk Southern is seeking state permission to expand the scope of its operation. If granted Richmond’s approval, employees could unload up to 30 railcars filled with ethanol each day, all within a short distance from a dense residential community, Metro station and elementary school.

Thankfully, state officials finally clued City Hall into the company’s request, giving local authorities a chance to protest the move at the very least.

If this sounds familiar, well, it should. The city’s never had a great rapport with Norfolk Southern. After ethanol spills in 2009 and last year, employees at the facility alerted state emergency responders rather than local authorities. In both incidents, Alexandria’s fire officials were the last to know about a potential life-threatening situation.

But the communications breakdown stretches back even further to the facility’s opening in 2008. City staff knew about Norfolk Southern’s plans for the area but wrongly assumed the company would need local approval before launching its operation.

As a result, residents and city councilors abruptly learned that the company had been operating the facility for weeks while the fire department lacked the equipment to handle an ethanol-fueled emergency.
That’s certainly what we would call a failure to communicate.

Unfortunately, though, it seems the only power available to City Hall is to nicely ask Norfolk Southern to keep them in the loop. Fortunately, this seems to have worked in the recent past.

After September’s spill, fire officials reiterated the need for company employees to contact them as well as Richmond in the case of an incident. Norfolk Southern complied, letting the fire department know immediately about another spill in February.

The onus for repairing the latest breach in this rocky relationship, though, truly rests on Norfolk Southern. The company has followed its procedures and those mandated by the state and federal government. It has done nothing wrong except ignoring — and as a result, enraging — Alexandria’s residents and elected officials.

It’s a matter of common courtesy, really. If you’re planning on throwing a house party, you cordially alert your neighbors of the potential commotion. Then you do everything possible as the host to keep from bothering those living nearby.

In our analogy, Norfolk Southern has — with few exceptions — played the role of the unruly college kids down the street. It’s time for the transportation giant to grow up and behave like a good neighbor.