By Saraya Wintersmith
On a cold and icy Saturday afternoon, dozens of concerned residents braved the weather for another chance to voice apprehension with railroad giant CSX’s bid to modernize the nearly 4,000-foot-long rail tunnel beneath Virginia Avenue SE. Almost every interest group and agency was represented in the room at the District of Columbia government offices building, and although a key voice that could potentially sway the tracks on the issue was missing – that of Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – not a single resident expressed support for the tunnel project during the 2-hour session.
DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton made it clear from the meeting’s onset that the EPA was expected to spend a large portion of the time expounding on concerns. “As early as December the 19th,” said Delegate Norton, “my office was in touch with the EPA.” She said the meeting was set well in advance of the January 25th date and that the agency gave no indication it would not show up to elaborate on its own dissatisfaction with the tunnel proposal. The reason for the EPA’s absence was not immediately clear, but the agency has already written a letter citing “some deficiencies and areas of concern,” with the project including environmental justice, child health, and cumulative and community impacts. “My anger is with the EPA this afternoon and I am not going to give up,” Norton said. She then turned the microphone to those in attendance saying it could be useful for residents to voice their environmental concerns about the project.
The century-old tunnel is located underneath Virginia Avenue SE and spans from 2nd Street SE to 11th Street SE. CSX wants to reconstruct the tunnel to eliminate what officials have deemed a bottleneck area, and expand the rail’s capacity to move freight “in an environmentally sensitive manner,” according VirginaAvenueTunnel.com. The project would involve re-establishing a second set of tracks – as was laid during the tunnel’s original construction – raising the ceiling of the tunnel and making it wide enough to accommodate the girth and height of a modern double-stacked train car. Delegate Norton says modernization is good and railroads are central to the national economy, but she and many Ward 6 residents don’t agree with the idea to expand railroad operations in an area that’s inhabited by so many people.
Much of the opposition seemed to revolve around the movement of Bakken crude oil through a residential area. Named for the Northern region where it originates, the federal government labeled Bakken crude a safety concern in early January after the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration (PHMSA) began unannounced inspections to ensure carriers complied with labeling standards. PHMSA later expanded the study to find out more about the oil’s chemical composition in light of the repeated, unusually high explosion intensity when trains carrying the crude derailed. PHMSA spokesperson Gordon Delcambre Jr. says samples from the Bakken are at an independent laboratory undergoing testing. “We hope to have the results soon and intend on posting them on our public website,” Delcambre told The Capital News.
CSX officials at the meeting maintained that crude oil shipments through DC are rare. The company’s Manager of Environmental Remediation, Keith Brinker, acknowledged there were 3 tank cars of Bakken carried through the district in 2013, but James McPhillips, a resident of Ward 6, doesn’t want that number to increase with the tunnel modernization project.
“We have seen over the last six months the devastating environmental consequences of this material,” he said, citing recent accidents and explosions involving the crude oil. “We’ve seen it in Quebec, we’ve seen it in Aliceville, Alabama, we’ve seen it in Casselton, North Dakota…and they are carrying this stuff through Washington, DC. I think we need to hear more from CSX and the agencies about what will happen when they conduct this project that increases the risks of that happening.”
CSX’s Director of Federal Affairs, Steve Flippin responded to McPhillips citing the 3 car statistic and stating that CSX does not plan to increase the amount of crude moving through the district. McPhillips and other residents then fired back citing a recent announcement from CSX Chief Executive Officer Michael Ward. Ward said in early February that the company’s crude shipments via rail would increase by 50 percent in 2014. CSX officials at the meeting had no comment regarding the announcement.
In the meantime the tunnel project is being reviewed by the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration. The two will collaborate to prepare a final Environmental Impact Statement – a document meant to weigh the positive and negative environmental effects of a given action. Once the statement is finalized, the Federal Highway Administration will decide to strike or approve the project. If approved, DDOT would have to approve the subsequent construction permits.