Fire on railcar stirs fears over Virginia Avenue tunnel project in Southwest D.C.

November 17, 2013

A railcar carrying wooden railroad ties caught fire Sunday as it traveled across the city before responders extinguished the flames just before noon and moved the car to a rail yard in Virginia to unload its contents.

Officials said the fire began sometime before the car was stopped at 4th Street and Virginia Avenue SW after traveling through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel, but a cause has not been identified. There were no injuries.

Helena Smolich was in Garfield Park near Virginia Avenue and 2nd Street SE, walking her dog, when she saw the train moving slowly out of the tunnel, which runs under 15th and M streets SE to 2nd Street and Virginia Avenue SE.

“There was just smoke,” she said. “The whole park was engulfed in smoke.” Smolich, who has lived in the area for five years, said she’d never seen anything like it and quickly returned to her home a half block away.

Neighbors were on high alert as news of the fire spread via community listservs and e-mails. The more than 100-year-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel has been a point of controversy as the city considers expanding it to accommodate larger CSX trains. In particular, neighbors worry that the construction might interfere with emergency responses if a fire occurs.

“It’s sort of one of those wake-up calls with what’s coming down the pike with this thing,” said James McPhillips, who lives on Virginia Avenue near the tunnel. Though the fire was quickly controlled by D.C. Fire Department’s Engine 13, Truck 10, McPhillips and others worry that a long effort to expand the tunnel could threaten the safety and quality of life of those living alongside it.

David Garber, a neighborhood commissioner for Ward 6, which includes the tunnel, said he had a similar reaction learning about the fire on social media.

“It’s a huge concern for me and for my residents because this is an issue we’ve been trying to get CSX to pay attention to,” he said. Garber said he has pushed CSX for more details about how the construction process would affect air quality, emergency response access and other safety matters, but hasn’t received a satisfactory response.

In a release, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) wrote that she was assured that CSX had hazmat emergency plans in place, but that those were not shared publicly. CSX also does not share a full list of the materials it transports.

Maureen Harrington, a lawyer who lives in the neighborhood, said that puts the community at risk. Sunday’s fire, for example, involved wooden railroad ties, which are soaked in creosote to treat and preserve the wood. If burned, creosote can release toxic chemicals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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