Alexandria’s elected leaders are upset, again, about Norfolk Southern’s plans to lengthen railroad cars that carry ethanol and install new equipment at its transfer yard on the west end of the city, near the rapidly developing Eisenhower Avenue area.
Norfolk Southern, in a meeting last week with city officials and in a letter dated Friday, said it plans to change its tracks and install new equipment, including spill-containment gear, and move its rail-to-truck ethanol transfer point one-quarter mile west, farther from the residential neighborhood. Company officials also told city officials that they probably will lengthen trains.
“An industrial facility of this type does not belong in our community,” Mayor William D. Euille (D) 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 fighting against the operation or expansion of this facility.”
A Norfolk Southern spokeswoman who responded to inquiries from The Washington Post on Friday repeated what the company said in a letter to the city, saying it is trying to meet customer demand and transfer ethanol more efficiently.
“The improvements will add capacity at the bulk transfer facility,” Susan Terpay, Norfolk Southern’s director of public relations, said in an e-mail.
Euille said in an interview that the city doesn’t know how much expansion is planned but that any is too much.
“They weren’t specific, but whatever they do is an intensification of what they’re already doing,” he said.
The relationship between the city and one of the nation’s largest transportation companies has been difficult for years. Two years ago, city officials objected to the company’s plan to expand operations at the site, near homes with 4,000 residents, a 700-student elementary school, a Metro station and the Capital Beltway. In 2008, the city unsuccessfully tried to prevent the railroad from using the site to transfer ethanol from railcars to trucks. Residents also complained about the dangers and noise from the 24-hours-a-day operation.
Ethanol, a grain alcohol that is a highly flammable liquid, can create poisonous gas if it burns, and flames must be fought with an alcohol-resistant foam. The Norfolk Southern site has had three spills of more than 50 gallons in the past six years, its executives acknowledged in written responses to community questions in 2014.
The transfer from railcars to trucks is necessary, company statements say, because its customers, gasoline-blending plants in Northern Virginia, are not on railroad lines.
The Alexandria Fire Department has a crew trained in fighting ethanol-based fires, but it, and the alcohol-resistant foam, are stationed at Potomac Yard, across the traffic-congested city from the rail yard.
A new fire station on Eisenhower Avenue near the Norfolk Southern site is staffed only with emergency medical technicians, not firefighters. The City Council asked the acting city manager and the fire chief at a budget meeting Thursday night to propose ways to get a bigger crew and more equipment to the Eisenhower Avenue station as quickly as possible.
“Most of the council indicated this is a high priority, knowing what we know about Norfolk Southern’s plans,” Euille said.