On March 19, 2015, Norfolk Southern Corporation delivered a letter to the City of Alexandria at a meeting with City staff, advising that the company plans to make changes to its ethanol transloading facility in the West End area of Alexandria. While the Norfolk Southern letter described proposed changes as “increasing our rail car handling efficiency” by reconfiguring track layout and installing additional equipment, company representatives explained in the meeting that the changes would likely include lengthening rail cars or trains. The letter also indicated that Norfolk Southern plans to shift the transfer point approximately one quarter mile west.
“An industrial facility of this type does not belong in our community,” said Mayor William D. Euille. “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.”
The company had given the City no update of its plans since expressing an interest in future expansion in 2013. Staff will seek a meeting with Norfolk Southern’s chief executive officer to formally request that new ethanol facilities not be constructed in Alexandria. If the company does not agree to limit its proposal, the City will continue to press for all possible safety measures and improvements in community relations.
Since 2006, when Norfolk Southern first notified the City of the company’s plans to locate an ethanol transloading facility in Alexandria, City leaders and staff have vigorously opposed the facility as being incompatible with the surrounding neighborhood. Despite the City’s litigation against Norfolk Southern and other efforts to block or curtail the facility through various local, state, and federal means, the courts have ruled that the interstate commerce provisions of federal law preempt the City’s authority to regulate railroad operations in the same manner the City regulates other land uses. Most recently, the City sent two letters to the U.S. Department of Transportation in 2014, to urge new federal regulations to restrict ethanol operations in densely populated residential areas.
Members of City Council have previously stated their belief that “Norfolk Southern acted irresponsibly in locating this facility in a residential neighborhood.” Continuous work by City staff has resulted in Norfolk Southern making some improvements, including additional safety equipment, faster notifications of incidents, coordination and cooperation with respect to fire, environmental and emergency response, and a 2014 community meeting hosted by Norfolk Southern. While there may be benefits to the changes described in Norfolk Southern’s most recent letter, the proposal appears to result in an intensification of ethanol storage and transfer operations.
Ethanol is grain alcohol that has been produced from crops such as corn, wheat, and barley. Because it cannot travel in pipelines along with gasoline, it must be transported via trucks, trains or barges. Norfolk Southern ships liquid ethanol by rail car to its facility, where the material is transloaded (off-loaded by the railroad’s contractor into tanker trucks) for final delivery to gasoline tank farms mostly in the City of Fairfax and Fairfax County. While there are inherent risks associated with transloading ethanol, the City has undertaken actions to mitigate risks such as the provision of special training and equipment for the Alexandria Fire Department to contain an ethanol fire and the development of an evacuation plan in the unlikely event that there is an incident at the facility.
Extensive documentation of the City’s efforts to oppose the transloading facility, including the letter the City received from Norfolk Southern today, are available at www.alexandriava.gov/