West End residents sour after Norfolk Southern meeting

West End residents sour after Norfolk Southern meeting

By Katie Callahan (File photo)

A community meeting with Norfolk Southern’s representatives last month to discuss the future of its West End ethanol facility did little to defrost Alexandria’s chilly relationship with the shipping giant.

City officials requested a company meet-and-greet after learning last year that Norfolk Southern wanted state permission to expand the transloading facility. That revelation, which left both residents and elected officials outraged, was just the latest in a string of perceived slights on the part of Norfolk Southern.

When the company opened its South Van Dorn Street facility in 2008, city officials were among the last to know. Despite an expensive legal battle, City Hall failed to shut down its ethanol unloading operation, which is just a short distance from a residential neighborhood and a school.

The ethanol facility has been home to several spills of the highly flammable compound in the intervening years. In a few of those cases, the Alexandria Fire Department was not immediately alerted.

Officials hoped efforts to improve lines of communication between City Hall and Norfolk Southern in the wake of those episodes would bear fruit, but when the company sought permission to expand its operation they kept Alexandria’s brass in the dark. City Hall found out about the request only after the state notified local officials.

If it gets approval, Norfolk Southern can more than double its operation, unloading up to 30 rail cars full of ethanol a day. Company representatives walked residents and city officials through its day-to-day activities and safety measures during the June 17 gathering at Hilton Alexandria Mark Center on Seminary Road.

But the meeting, arranged as a round robin of experts armed with presentations, failed to assuage wary residents. Mindy Lyle, a board member of nearby Cameron Station Civic Association, called it a “PR ploy” and said the format allowed Norfolk Southern to sidestep resident concerns.

“The general attitude of Norfolk Southern was that they didn’t care what the public thought or what the public’s concerns were and they don’t care to be a corporate citizen,” she said. “They’re just there to make money and that was loud and clear.”

City officials previously asked the company to hold an open-mic session, but Norfolk Southern felt its style made it easier to disseminate technical information to residents, said Rich Baier, director of the Alexandria Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.

At least residents got a few questions answered, he said.

Robin Chapman, Norfolk Southern’s director of public relations, said several queries went unanswered because of their sensitive proprietary nature. The company wants to put nearby residents at ease, he said.

Chapman said plans to expand Norfolk Southern’s Alexandria operation hinge on future ethanol demand.

“We are certainly conscious of our neighbors’ concerns and we have tried to address those concerns,” he said. “We understand that we cannot satisfy everyone’s desires as far as how we operate there.”