By Erich Wagner (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Representatives of regional railroad giant Norfolk Southern informed city leaders last week that it plans to expand operations at its controversial ethanol transloading facility on the West End.
In a letter to Mayor Bill Euille, representatives of the company said it plans to “invest in track infrastructure … to increase the efficiency of operations by increasing our rail car handling efficiency.” But officials at City Hall interpret the language to mean one thing: more ethanol being offloaded from train cars onto trucks near a residential area.
“An industrial facility of this type does not belong in our community,” Euille said in a statement. “As we have for nearly a decade, we will continue to advocate for the safety and quality of life of our residents by not supporting the operation or expansion of this facility.”
Bill Skrabak, deputy director of the department of transportation and environmental services, said officials met with Norfolk Southern representatives, but received little in the way of details.
“We just got the letter [Thursday] so we’re still digesting it,” he said. “Staff met with Norfolk Southern and we asked a lot of questions, but it was primarily with the government relations folks, not the designers or the operators, so we didn’t get a lot of answers. … We’re starting to compile the questions we do have and we hope to get answers as quickly as we can.”
According to the company’s letter, it plans to reconfigure the track layout at the facility, install additional transfer stations and move all truck loading to one location, about a quarter mile to the west of current transloading operations, away from the Cameron Station neighborhood.
“The improvements also present an opportunity for [Norfolk Southern] to reduce the amount of switching and the number of weekly train delivery events at the Alexandria [facility],” said company representative C.S. Muir in the letter. “As a result, the improvements will benefit residents who live near the facility by reducing rail car switching and consolidating truck-loading operations in a single location.”
But city leaders and residents say any proposal that increases the amount of ethanol being handled at the facility will increase their concern and opposition to the controversial site. The city sued to try to prevent the company from building the facility, but courts ruled the city could not regulate Norfolk Southern because of its status as a railroad company engaging in interstate commerce.
“They know how the city feels about this,” said City Councilor Paul Smedberg. “That location for us, for the safety of residents and because of some of the industrial uses down there, is not optimal. We have serious safety concerns about ethanol transloading in such an urban area, and to expand on that is just not wise.”
Cameron Station resident Don Buch said he was resigned to the idea that Norfolk Southern can do as it wishes, and wants city leaders to focus on how to mitigate the situation.
“When it comes down to it, they’re going to do what they’re going to do,” he said. “[The] point that’s got the citizens concerned is this: The fact they were going to expand some time is not a surprise, but we haven’t done a good job detailing what we’ve got [to deal with problems]. We’ve got a foam truck that can handle ethanol spills, but it’s stationed at Potomac Yard … and Station 210 is finally built but no firefighters to staff it.”
LEARNING FROM THE PAST
Just a week before Norfolk Southern’s letter reached City Hall, city councilors approved a measure to help give it leverage over another infrastructure-based corporation it has wrangled with in recent months: Dominion Virginia Power.
Dominion is in the process of decided when and where to build a 230-kilovolt transmission line from its substation in Arlington to the site of the closed GenOn coal-fired power plant. Representatives also have discussed expanding the substation at the GenOn site.
On March 14, city councilors unanimously approved a measure requiring utilities to seek a special use permit for any new substation or terminal station construction. Smedberg said it’s important to make sure officials a larger say in how utilities operate within the city limits.
“If [an expanded substation] is something they choose to pursue, we thought it was important to have these guidelines in place,” he said. “[Particularly] in light of the fact that ultimately that site will be redeveloped — and, if so, the entire site — so we want to make sure if they do come forward with a proposal to expand, it’s not something that’s going to prohibit or exclude certain types of projects because of visual impacts.”
This move was the latest in a series of efforts by city officials to learn from the mistakes surrounding Norfolk Southern’s opening of the transloading facility in 2008. Staff has posted all correspondence between City Hall and Dominion on the transmission line proposal to the city website as it was received, and city councilors have been heavily involved with discussions with the utility.
City spokesman Craig Fifer said that all can be traced back to the transloading facility.
“In the interest of full disclosure, the city was sharply criticized at the initial part of things for not notifying the community earlier that it was planned and the city’s effort internally to oppose it,” he said. “We were doing a lot of work, but we didn’t do a good job to coordinate internally and let the community know.
“[One] lesson we learned was it’s just important to keep the community apprised of our efforts as we make them.”
Smedberg said the first Norfolk Southern ordeal definitely colors his interactions with Dominion.
“I was personally very disappointed by how this whole thing played out initially,” he said. “If [council] was told early on and had a chance to discuss it, we may not be dealing with it today. … We’ve learned a lot since that time.”
PREPARING FOR IMPACTS
Skrabak said local public safety agencies have worked over the past several years to improve communication with Norfolk Southern so they can respond to an ethanol spill if needed.
“It’s more questions for us to try to understand the impacts and the changes caused by this expansion,” he said. “And while we wish they weren’t there to begin with, at the end of the day, if that happens, we’ll try to do everything we can to minimize the risk to the community. My department, the fire marshal’s office, the full fire department and the office of emergency planning will reach out to understand the operational changes so that we’re prepared.”
But Buch said officials may struggle to meet those challenges. He noted that Alexandria Fire Chief Robert Dube said at a recent budget work session that the next fire fighter academy class doesn’t begin until February 2016, meaning that unless the department shifts its staffing around, the new Station 210 will have no firefighters on staff until the end of next year.
“Maybe people are untrusting by nature, but we don’t have a good way to assess the level of danger, the level of protection or how good of a job [Norfolk Southern] is doing,” Buch said. “We need to minimize the risks and get organize. Having the foam truck at the far northeast side of town, who knows where the [Station] 209 firefighters will be when there’s an ethanol spill? What if they’re already dealing with a fire?”
Buch said residents were further frustrated by officials’ response to their request for firefighters on staff at Station 210 when it opens.
“They said, ‘Well this is add/delete, so what would you delete?’” he said. “I don’t know. We’re not the budget experts. One of your responsibilities is public safety, and it seems like public safety is at risk.”