Railroad plans to expand ethanol shipments alarm Alexandria officials

Alexandria officials — angered by a proposal that would double the amount of ethanol transferred to tank trucks at a rail yard next to an elementary school, townhouses and a Metro station — are calling for public hearings and making plans to fight the move.

City Manager Rashad Young has asked the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to require two local meetings, including a public hearing, on whether to grant the Norfolk Southern railroad’s request to increase the quantity of ethanol coming to the site and acquire the air quality permit needed to do so.

Mayor William D. Euille (D), who said Norfolk Southern failed to notify officials of its plans, said the City Council would go further and soon pass a resolution opposing the expansion. He said he would consult with the city’s lawyers, its congressional delegation and state officials as well.

“Obviously this creates a concern for both the environmental and safety factors,” Euille said of the proposal. “The way we found out was totally unacceptable; [Norfolk Southern] didn’t come in and talk to the city about their plans to expand. . . . We’ve had concerns about the air quality from the beginning.”

City officials said they learned of Norfolk Southern’s plans late Friday, when the state Environmental Quality Department notified local officials that the railroad had asked in January for an air permit that would allow ethanol from 30 rail cars to be moved into tanker trucks, instead of from the existing 14 rail cars.

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin C. Chapman said that no decisions have been made about increasing the volume of ethanol and that the railroad is simply exploring its options.

“Norfolk Southern has considered the possibility of expanding the ethanol transfer facility in Alexandria should market conditions warrant but has not decided at this time to implement any such plans,” Chapman said in a statement. “Recognizing that a state air quality permit would be required to proceed with an expansion, the company wants to be able to act quickly to future market conditions and chose to apply to the DEQ for a permit ahead of the need. Appropriate safety measures would be designed into such a facility, but a design does not now exist.”

The rail yard, at 1000 S. Van Dorn St., has been there for generations, but it was only five years ago that the railroad began moving ethanol from trains to trucks there.

At the time, residents of nearby Cameron Station strongly protested the operation and the city’s failure to notify them of the plans. Mindy Lyle, a neighborhood resident since 2000, said she is “so beyond furious” at the expansion request.

“Norfolk Southern knows from previous experience how we felt about this from day one,” she said.

It’s not just the ethanol transfers that anger residents, she said, but the 2 a.m. noise of train movements, pollution and the unwillingness of the railroad to talk to its neighbors in an area that is rapidly redeveloping. “The rail yard has been there for a long time, but this use was not there,” she said. Trains from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus used to park in the area, and circus employees would live there while performing in the Washington area. But once ethanol operations came in, the circus left, she said.

The timing of the air permit notification irks local officials who say it follows the railroad’s pattern of failing to notify Alexandria about issues that arise. In September, 150 gallons of ethanol spilled at the Van Dorn yard, and Norfolk Southern alerted the National Response Center, which called the state, which called the city. In September 2008, the railroad failed to alert the city of a spill at the same location.

There had been some improvement. The railroad notified the city in February when 100 gallons of ethanol spilled at the Van Dorn yard.

The city, which lost a 2009 lawsuit attempting to regulate the trucks leaving the rail yard, does not have the legal power to stop the operation.

Ethanol, a flammable grain alcohol made from corn, wheat and barley, is most often used as a domestically produced motor fuel. It cannot be shipped via pipeline, and fires fed by ethanol cannot by extinguished by water and require a special chemical foam.

Any expansion in the amount of ethanol transferred would require a state air permit. Citing “longstanding serious concerns about the operations of this facility,” Young said in a letter to Virginia’s Environmental Quality Department that the expansion “would undoubtedly increase the risks from the facility and raise the concerns from the community.”

James B. LaFratta, regional air permit manager for the Northern Regional Office of the department, said his agency is not required to do so but could call a public hearing if officials or residents raise objections to Norfolk Southern’s plans and their effect on air quality. A draft air permit has been prepared, but no decision has been made on whether to have a hearing, LaFratta said.

Don Buch, president of the Cameron Station Civic Association, said nearby residents are worried about the request, as well as the increase in noise and disturbance caused by more industrial activity.

“If there is a risk, and I think there’s an inherent one, obviously going from 14 to 30 cars doubles it,” Buch said. “If you don't want to play with matches, you take away the matches, not add more to the pile. . . . We want to understand what our options are and we want the city to step forward and not just be an observer.”

Euille said the city is also preparing to look at planning for that section of the city, where a number of industrial plants are operating under special-use permits that eventually will expire.

“If Norfolk Southern was allowed to expand, that could cripple or handicap our planning. It’s not beyond reason to expect that the rail yard would eventually close, despite its long history there,” he said, citing the Potomac Yard switchyard that once occupied the city’s eastern portion, or other industrial operations that no longer exist in Alexandria.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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