Editorial: Improvement still possible in Norfolk Southern negotiations

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Editorial: Improvement still possible in Norfolk Southern negotiations
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(Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)

People often say that it’s important to learn from one’s mistakes. When regional railroad giant Norfolk Southern first set out to build an ethanol transloading facility on the West End, Alexandria residents and city councilors rightfully had complaints about how city staff handled it.

Although staff worked to oppose the facility, they did so quietly, not including residents or elected officials in the process from the beginning. Many, like City Councilor Paul Smedberg, believe the city could have extracted more concessions from the corporation if it got out in front of the proposal, if not stopping it from being built in the first place.

Last week, Norfolk Southern sent a letter to city officials announcing their intention to “increase the efficiency” of the site, which officials say is PR talk for expanding its ethanol operation. This time, though, staff and elected officials have been up front in their opposition, if not hopeful in their ability to prevent the company’s proposal from coming to fruition.

City leaders said the mistakes of yesteryear in keeping people out of the loop have informed their tactics dealing not only with Norfolk Southern but also in their negotiations with Dominion Virginia Power, which plans to run a 230-kilovolt transmission line through Alexandria.

This is to be commended. Staff and city councilors’ quick response and healthy skepticism have forced the utility to engage with the community in search of a least objectionable route for the power line. And council’s action earlier this month to require utilities to pursue a special use permit for any new or expanded substations within the city limits could give leaders valuable leverage over the corporation.

Still, some people have not learned from past mistakes. It was a mistake for Norfolk Southern to build a facility for the handling of volatile materials so close to residents, schools and other businesses. It would be a mistake to expand that operation, even if the proposal moves it a paltry quarter mile to the west, as the company suggests.

Although legally, Norfolk Southern appears to have carte blanche authority to do as it wishes within the city limits, thanks to interstate commerce provisions governing railroad companies, the corporation still should strive to be a good neighbor. A little goodwill can go a long way for businesses.

It appears that City Hall has learned from past mistakes in its effort to protect residents from disruptive and potentially hazardous industrial uses, it must work harder to prevent future mistakes from happening in the first place.

Although there have been no catastrophes thus far at the West End ethanol facility — and past spills reportedly very minor and easily contained — it is important to remember that nothing is foolproof. Public safety officials must ensure resources are available and well positioned to respond quickly and effectively to any future spill.

City officials must keep themselves abreast of all developments at the controversial facility. And just as importantly, they should strive to make sure the soon-to-be-open Station 210 in the Eisenhower Valley is properly staffed to handle fire or other ethanol-related emergencies.

City Hall may not be able to stop Norfolk Southern, but one thing it can do is fix the dearth of first responders in the neighborhood.

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