CSX Transportation says residents in a Southeast Washington community who have raised concerns about trains carrying crude oil passing through the District can rest assured that crude oil transportation through the city is rare, and that there is no market in the area for it.
At a heated public meeting over the weekend, Navy Yard residents who oppose a proposal from CSX to reconstruct a tunnel underneath Virginia Avenue SE, from Second to 11th streets, said the upgrade of the 110-year-old infrastructure could result in greater amounts of crude oil passing through their neighborhood.
But CSX said that crude shipments through the District are unusual. In 2013, CSX transported three loaded cars of crude oil through the 3,800-foot-long tunnel, in separate trains, CSX said.
More than 7,000 trains passed through the tunnel last year, company officials said. CSX officials also said unit trains — large trains transporting only crude oil — don’t move through the District.
“There is no market for crude oil in or around D.C. today, or in the foreseeable future,” the company said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Refineries are north of D.C. and the origins of crude oil trains are all to the west.”
CSX is proposing to upgrade the one-track tunnel to build two tracks and make it deeper to allow double-stacked trains to pass through. The current tunnel is a major bottleneck in its East Coast rail network, CSX said, and needs the improvements to handle projected increases in freight transportation.
But the project would require the tunnel be ripped out, and construction on an open trench, just steps from residences in the rapidly growing Navy Yard neighborhood.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) held the community meeting Saturday afternoon, the latest in a series of meetings where residents have come out against the project. Norton had invited the Environmental Protection Agency to the meeting to talk about environmental concerns related to the plan, but the agency did not show.
“We expected the EPA here,” said Norton, noting her office and the agency had been in touch about the meeting since mid-December. “I am totally outraged, and I cannot give up on this. We are going to hear from the EPA one way or the other.”
Norton said in e-mail exchanges the EPA said it had concerns about coming to comment on the project. She said she wanted the agency to summarize the environmental issues associated with the project. The EPA listed some concerns in a document sent to the agencies reviewing the proposal.
The EPA said the tunnel project presents “some deficiencies and areas of concern, including environmental justice, children’s environmental health, cumulative impacts and community impacts, especially vibration, parks, visual and utility disruptions.”
Saturday’s meeting turned into a heated exchange between residents and officials from CSX. Residents say they fear the construction would increase the chances of a derailment in the area. They have cited recent train incidents elsewhere in North America involving oil shipments, including a train carrying crude oil that derailed and exploded in a small town in Quebec in the summer, killing 47 people. In December, hundreds of people were evacuated after a mile-long train, also carrying crude oil, derailed and exploded in Casselton, N.D. And last week, a train derailed in downtown Philadelphia leaving a load of crude oil dangling over a river.
In response to those incidents, the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday recommended stricter federal oversight of train transportation of crude oil.
CSX says it understands there are concerns about crude shipments, but says it has no plan to increase such shipments through the region. Steve Flippin, CSX’s director of federal affairs, said upgrading the aging tunnel would position the company to keep the tunnel safe and address the deteriorating conditions.
“This project replaces 100-year-old infrastructure and, in turn, positions the region and nation for economic growth, reduced highway congestion and an improved environment,” CSX said in a statement. “We recognize this much-needed project would create disruption to the community and, since 2008, have engaged them throughout the planning process to share information about the project and listen to and address community concerns.”
The project is under review by the D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. The agencies are conducting an environmental assessment of the project and could release a final report early this year. After the assessment is completed, the federal agency is expected to issue a decision on the project, and if CSX wins federal approval, it would then apply to DDOT for construction permits.