Just Not In Alexandria
By Carla Branch
Ethanol is the highly flammable, corn-based alcohol that has become the bio fuel of choice. In Virginia, the gasoline that powers most automobiles contains ten percent ethanol. However, when residents of Cameron Station and Summers Grove, two condominium complexes in Alexandria, learned that Norfolk Southern Railroad is operating an ethanol transloading facility on their Van Dorn Street property, those Alexandrians complained. On Tuesday night, the Alexandria City Council declared war on the ethanol operation, vowing to do everything possible to shut it down.
Council learned that Norfolk Southern was using the Van Dorn property to load ethanol from tanker rail cars to tanker trucks on May 15, in a memorandum from City Manager Jim Hartmann. Norfolk Southern actually began the ethanol operation at the Van Dorn Street facility on April 9.
“So for seven weeks this operation has been ongoing without our knowledge and without proper fire suppression equipment or properly trained personnel to handle a disaster involving this ethanol,” said Councilman Tim Lovain.
Alexandria Fire Chief Adam Thiel agreed that this was accurate. “Norfolk Southern has provided us with the funds to procure the necessary fire suppression equipment and has given us a slot at their hazardous material training facility in Colorado,” Thiel said. “However, we just received the trailer that will be our main suppression vehicle and are just scheduling training for our personnel. We plan to schedule a day-long training for all members of each of our three shifts and that will take time.
Each rail car that enters the facility carries 29,000 gallons of ethanol. The facility can handle 20 cars at any given time with storage for 10 additional cars. Norfolk Southern officials, however, assured Council that they would only ever offload three cars at a time.
Thiel explained the risks of having large quantities of ethanol so close to population centers. “Ethanol is highly flammable and is arriving and being loaded from the rail cars into the trucks is at a 95 percent concentration. While Norfolk Southern has built a large spill containment area, should something ignite the ethanol, it would burn at a very high temperature, without smoke or flame. The smoke and flame would come from the materials that the ethanol would burn.
“A special type of foam is required to suppress ethanol fires and Norfolk Southern has a large quantity of this foam onsite. The Alexandria Fire Department also has ordered quantities of this foam and a special vehicle to carry it,” Thiel said.
The ethanol comes into the Van Dorn facility by rail, is loaded onto tanker trucks, leaves the facility via Van Dorn Street, turns onto Eisenhower Avenue for a brief time and leaves Alexandria on the Capital Beltway. “We have selected the haul route that has the trucks in the City for the shortest amount of time,” Hartmann told Council.
Transferring the ethanol from one conveyance to another is a “closed loop” process. “One hose carries the liquid from the rail car into the tanker and another captures the fumes and carries those into the truck as well so that no vapor escapes into the atmosphere,” Thiel said. “Norfolk Southern is in complete compliance with all fire safety code.”
Norfolk Southern operates five ethanol transloading facilities in the United States and has never had an accident. “This is a very safe process,” said Doug McNeil, who represented Norfolk Southern at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
What Did They Know and When Did They Know It
While Council was surprised that Norfolk Southern had begun other transloading operation in April, the idea was not new. “I remember attending a meeting in June of 2006 when Norfolk Southern broached this idea,” said Mayor Bill Euille. “We told the company at that meeting that we were not in favor of such an operation and that the company would have to go through a Special Use Permit process and that Norfolk Southern would have to go sell the idea to the nearby residents. Then, we didn’t hear anything until this May 15 memo.”
Council may not have heard anything but City staff did. In August, 2006, Hartmann conveyed the City’s decision to Norfolk Southern. In September, Norfolk Southern indicated that the company did not agree with the decision and did not feel that a Special Use Permit was required.
“I had done the legal research and felt that we were on very firm ground,” said City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa.
That was until early 2008. “In November, 2007, we heard from Norfolk Southern that they planned to proceed with the ethanol operation. In January, 2008, the staff asked me to research getting an injunction to stop them pending a Special Use Permit,” Pessoa said.
Euille had a question. “If it was that important in January, why didn’t someone inform the members of this body,” he said.
The answer was that Pessoa was conducting research. That research led to the discovery of a ruling from the Surface Transportation Board saying that federal law superseded local authority and that land use provisions could not be used to stop operations that were basically railroad driven. “The only way that localities have jurisdictions over operations on railroad property is if they are private operations and not part of the transportation by rail operation. I have concluded that this ethanol transloading operation is another service that Norfolk Southern would offer to any rail customer who was shipping something by rail,” Pessoa said.
Now that they know and apparently can’t do anything about it, what is next for the Alexandria City Council? “We have written letters to Sen. Warner and Sen. Webb and to Congressman Moran and asked for their help,” said Councilman Justin Wilson. “If we can’t do anything about this on the local level, perhaps our federal delegation can.”
Euille wants to continue to look at the City’s legal options. “I don’t care if we become a laughingstock in the national press; I want to pursue this in court and try to get an injunction to stop this. I am concerned about the safety of our residents,” he said. “I also think there is blame on both sides, though. Someone on our own staff should have come to us and told us what was happening before this operation began. We shouldn’t have had to learn about it because of the concerns of citizens.”