City readies for Metro ribbon-cutting; Environmentalists seek post-remediation soil reports, lament wetlands destruction

City readies for Metro ribbon-cutting; Environmentalists seek post-remediation soil reports, lament wetlands destruction
(File Photo)

By Amy Will |

Opening day for the Potomac Yard Metro Station has been set for May 19 – proving that environmental obstacles, controversies and a string of delays seem to be no match for a $350 million dream. While Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson expressed elation that the long-planned station is finally about to open, local environmentalists continue to raise questions about soil stability and geological testing at the site.

“We’re really excited,” Wilson said. “You know, this is project that drives economic growth for Alexandria. There’s a lot of commercial entities that are located in Potomac Yard because this Metro was coming. It helps us get cars off the road. It’s a big climate initiative. And so, it’s good for our environment for sure.”

Located between the Ronald Reagan National Airport and Braddock Road stations, Potomac Yard will be Metro’s 98th station and serve riders on the Blue and Yellow lines.

When the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced on Sept. 30, 2022 that the station’s opening – which had been scheduled for October – was delayed indefinitely into 2023, it stated that soil instability had been found at the site. Wilson, however, said in an interview this week that the condition of the soil was just a minor obstacle and the fact that some believe it was the reason behind the pause in the project is “false, incorrect and not right.”

While the Sept. 30 WMATA press release announcing the delay also mentions problems with the project’s contractor, the first sentence in the release states that the station completion was delayed indefinitely “… due to unexpected site conditions and remediation efforts … ”

The WMATA release then elaborated, saying that problems with soil instability were discovered as work was being done to ensure signal integration and to build and integrate tracks at the site.

“As site work got underway, crews discovered issues with the underlying soil that affected the structural stability of the ground beneath the tracks,” the Sept. 30 WMATA release states.

“Construction was stopped and a remediation plan was developed and implemented. This work was beyond the initial scope of the tie-in work. Reinforcing the ground below the tracks required removing any work already completed, excavating additional soil beneath 1400 feet of track, and installing new subgrade materials to provide the required stability,” according to the WMATA release.

This was not the first time that issues with the ground underneath the structure were raised. Environmentalists and activists emerged in opposition to the project back in 2019, after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a Clean Water Act permit to the city for the station to be built on the site of ancient wetlands.

According to a USACE permit from 2019, the site – referred to as Alternative B – would permanently destroy 1.56 acres of wetlands and construction would temporarily impact another 2.01 acres. Among conditions laid out at the time was a promise that the city return temporarily disturbed wetland areas to their pre-construction form. Alexandria was also required to purchase 2.48 credits from an approved wetland mitigation bank to offset the loss of 1.56
acres of wetlands.

The new station will serve riders on the Blue and Yellow lines.
The new station will serve riders on the Blue and Yellow lines.

Community members from the start have questioned the location choice. They have expressed concern for the well-being of rare species of wildlife and trees, about soil quality and the overall impact a project of such magnitude would have on the surrounding land.

Local geologist Tony Fleming is not professionally affiliated with the Metro station, but has been open about his views. He shared his theories based on soil similar to that at
the site.

“It is infinitely compressible. It has no strength. When you bury that stuff, the weight of the overlying fell will keep compressing it over long periods of time. So, a lot depends on the exact geology beneath the exact site of the station,” Fleming said. Wilson acknowledged those opposed to the station’s location, but said that it is a small group.

“This station in this location has enjoyed broad and deep community support for a long time. And they were able to shepherd this station project through many ups and downs,” Wilson said.

Wilson stated that while there have been many tough decisions along the way, none have been made without the proper research and procedures.

“We worked through an exhaustive environmental impact statement process to get the support of numerous federal agencies. These were all agencies that were involved in this process, and they all signed off and said this was the best site for economic reasons, the best site for environmental reasons, the best site for transportation reasons, the best site for pretty much every measure. So, I appreciate there’s community members that still don’t like it. The reality is the station’s built; it’s going to open up,” Wilson stated.

Former Alexandria resident Hal Hardaway has been opposed to the station’s location since the beginning. He recently wrote to the Times highlighting several FOIA requests he made to the city about soil stability at the site. Hardaway said he ultimately did receive three geotechnical reports documenting findings from pre-construction, but,
still has not been able to find out if testing was done following last fall’s remediation work.

“I find it hard to believe there are no post-construction reports on the cause of the instability. And, if the information exists, then why has it not been provided? I’m getting more suspicious because I don’t think they’re being transparent,” Hardaway said.

Wilson pushed back against suggestions that there are reports that haven’t been disclosed.

“We gave it to him. It was like a geotechnical report. The issue just to be clear was that the compaction of the sand under the bed through the station did not meet standards. And, so they had to go and redo that sand so that it was compacting the right way before they ran trains over it forever,” Wilson said.

Wilson contends that trains have been running over the soil for months, so questions regarding instability are “a part of the project that is in the past.”

The mayor also insisted that every report that’s been requested has been provided. “I’ve never heard of any withheld report,” Wilson stated.

“I’ve never heard anyone asking for a report that was not disclosed. Nobody’s ever raised that conspiracy theory to me.”

Hardaway disagrees, and says he will continue to push for answers.

“I maintain my position. That’s why I sent the FOIA request,” he stated.

The Times reached out to WMATA this week for comment, and specifically asked WMATA, in a written email, to confirm whether post-remediation soil testing had been done and to provide those reports if they exist.

WMATA responded late Tuesday with a written statement that did not answer the question about whether post-remediation soil testing had been done. The statement reads, in part:

“Potomac Yard Station is built on a bed of 1500 concrete columns anchored in dense, very hard soil 50-60 feet deep and will provide a stable foundation for the lifespan of the station. We are working with our partners at WMSC [Washington Metrorail Safety Commission] on safety testing and certification, training employees, installing signage, faregates, fare machines and other station equipment.”

The Times also contacted WMATA Board Chair and former Alexandria City Councilor Paul Smedberg, who said he thought testing had been done, but didn’t know whether it was prior to or following the fall 2022 remediation.

“I think there was some extensive testing done, maybe the Park Service, I don’t know,” Smedberg said.

Wilson insisted that environmental concerns about the site are unwarranted. “This project is actually the largest wetlands restoration project the city’s under ever undertaken. So, the condition of those wetlands will be dramatically improved,” Wilson said.

The WMATA statement to the Times indicated that wetlands remediation efforts will not be completed by the scheduled May 19 station opening, and lumped them with to-do items
like building bike storage.

“When the station opens on May 19, we will still have some additional work such as restoring the adjacent wetlands, community amenities, architectural details, and setting up the secure bike and ride facility which will initially be covered bike storage, none of which will impede our ability to open the station for customers,” the statement said.

Fleming contends that his primary issue with the station from the beginning has been the destruction of the wetlands.

“They’re hugely valuable, and restored or mitigated wet- lands are never as effective. That’s just how it is. You cannot recreate something that’s taken thousands of years to
evolve,” Fleming stated.