All posts by M B

CSX and Neighborhood Disruption

The Washington Post published a recent article about the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel Project and its negative effects on surrounding residents: “Virginia Avenue Tunnel project advances in D.C. amid neighborhood disruption.”


“Midway to completion of the $250 million project, neighbors in the 11-block construction zone see no benefits. Virginia Avenue is closed to motor traffic and is fenced-in for bulldozers and other heavy machinery; crews have removed 20,900 truckloads of soil and poured 50,000 cubic yards of concrete. Residents at the Arthur Capper Senior Center say they have more difficulty getting around with the road closures, makeshift pedestrian bridges and longer walks to the bus stop. “The noise and the dust and the smell — sometimes it gets so bad in my apartment that I have to leave,” said Delores Rhodes, 71, who lives in the senior apartment building fronting the project at Fifth Street SE….

Most recently, residents’ complaints have centered on shaking they experience throughout the day. Tremors that feel like mini earthquakes cause water to ripple in glasses, they say. And residents say no, the rumbling is not being caused by trucks traveling on the nearby Southeast Freeway/I-695, as some officials contend.

Residents say the vibrations are coming from the new tunnel — which was built closer to their homes — and is caused by the trains, which they contend are traveling faster than they did before. “I assume it is because of the trains,” resident Jesse Skidmore said at a recent meeting with CSX. “I assume we are not just having earthquakes that are happening a few times a day.”

…But with about 20 more months of construction left, there is also still a lot of pain left to endure, said Maureen Cohen Harrington, who owns a townhouse near the tunnel. Construction is about to enter its most disruptive phase, she said, which involves demolishing the original tunnel.

Neighbors are trying to adapt, but they do not plan to stay quiet, having put up with too much for too long, she said.

“Uber can’t find us. Even Waze can’t keep up with it,” Cohen Harrington said, referring to the ride-hailing service and a navigation app for smartphones. “We have lost all our beautiful trees. We had a beautiful view and a beautiful courtyard. Now we have what feels like a war zone.”

CSX Deforestation Continues

The neighborhood says good bye to these beautiful trees when CSX cuts them down this month. photo from

The day has arrived: CSX is beginning to cut down mature trees on quiet, residential Virginia Avenue between 3rd and 4th streets.

They report: “The “No Parking” signs on Virginia Avenue between 3rd and 4thStreets S.E. are in place in order to allow tree removal in that area. This is a temporary condition and the reserved parking signs in that location will be removed once the trees are removed. The trees are scheduled to be removed by July 17th.”

Witness the destruction for yourself via live webcam at the following links:

CSX: Deforesting Ward 6′s Navy Yard

This majestic tree has stood at this corner for over a century

CSX Tree Killing for New Twin Tunnels


Ward 6 has the lowest tree canopy (17%) in the city. CSX has already started removing 191 trees from public lands in Ward 6, even though there’s a rapidly-advancing legal challenge underway by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City.

CSX is killing:

  • 168 trees along Virginia Avenue (47 with a diameter of more than 12 inches);
  • 15 trees in Virginia Avenue Park;
  • 8 trees on Marine Corps land;
  • 20 healthy trees of at least 17 ½ inches in diameter on CSX property; and
  • All other trees on CSX property, number unknown.

Now: wood chips. when the city renovated the building in these pictures, 200 I St., they removed exactly one tree. They recognized how significant the tree was and they used the wood in the floor of a conference room in the building. No such respect from CSX.

The CSX tree removal fee of $133,100 averages $697 per public tree.

Mature trees removed from public lands will eventually be replaced with saplings.

Mature trees removed from CSX lands do not have to be replaced, and CSX only needs permits for the 20 “special trees.”

There are 404 trees within the project’s Limits of Disturbance (LOD). Even trees that are not removed could weaken or die because of years of relentless construction, sometimes only a few feet away.
The environmental (NEPA) review did not analyze the cumulative loss of so many trees within such a concentrated geographic area.
The Capitol Hill Restoration Society said that many trees may not be replaceable in their current location because the wider, higher, shifted tunnels would interfere with their root systems.

For more information, see:


Tell them to stop construction while the CSX expansion receives proper legal review. And tell them to demand a new, fair, transparent environmental review. The last one was decided in secret before it even began. DC wants shade, not shady deals!


Mayor Muriel Bowser:                      202-442-8150 and

Councilmember Charles Allen:         202-724-8072 and

See this as a PDF:CSX Tree Killing

Cutting down a beautiful tree south of Virginia Avenue.

Stop! CSX Chops Down Trees in Ward 6, Site of DC’s Lowest Tree Canopy Cover

DC Wants Shade, Not C$X Shady Deals!


CSX will remove DC trees as early as May 18. Ward 6 has the lowest tree canopy cover in DC (only 17%), and summer heat and pollution is on the way. These are the only mature trees in our part of the city, and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. CSX should not be allowed to take these trees down – causing irreparable harm to our community – while there’s a legal challenge underway. CSX wants construction as far along as possible before its recently-discovered nefarious dealings are subject to legal, media, political, and public review.


The Committee of 100 on the Federal City (C100), DC’s foremost citizen planning group, is suing to stop work on the Virginia Avenue Tunnel expansion. The C100 has filed compelling evidence that the expansion was given an illegal green light by the DC government before going through the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It also appears that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) and CSX engaged in “pay to play,” with millions suspiciously changing hands.

The recently-produced 130,000+ page administrative record for the case reveals extensive behind-the-scenes negotiations in which DDOT and other executive branch officials dangled NEPA approval as an incentive for lucrative bargains with CSX. As one example, on January 20, 2010, DDOT’s head of Policy and Planning advised DDOT Director Gabe Klein that DDOT should determine “what leverage we have with the Virginia Avenue tunnel… and how we can use that [against CSX] for other acquisitions.” DDOT presented its wish list, and a slew of secret agreements ensued. CSX also made a 2012 “donation” to DC, the amount and terms of which are still unknown.

You shouldn’t get to tear up a neighborhood if you haven’t followed the rules.


Mayor Muriel Bowser: 202-442-8150 and

Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen: 202-724-8072 and

(Also consider attending Allen’s talk about  our low Ward 6 tree cover at Casey Trees in SW on 5/21/15 at 6pm: )

Tell them to put construction on hold while these backroom deals receive proper legal and other review. CSX is rushing to maximize its corporate profits and secure the benefit of its shady deals. Fair process, and the safety and security of residents and the nation’s capital, are paramount. Even the NEPA documents say that the tunnel will be safe for decades. If those are wrong, CSX should cease hazmat shipments through the tunnel immediately.




Download a PDF here: CSX Tree Flyer (1)

DCSR: DDOT Used Environmental Approval as Bargaining Chip for Series of Secret Agreements

For Release: May 7, 2015

DCSafeRail Contact:

C100 Contact: Les Alderman, Alderman, Devorsetz & Hora PLLC;, 202-969-8220 

DDOT Used Environmental Approval as Bargaining Chip for Series of Secret Agreements

C100 Takes Newly-Produced Documents to D.C. Circuit in Appeal to Halt Construction Approved Before Environmental Review

Litigation by the Committee of 100 on the Federal City (C100) has exposed backroom deals that locked the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) into approving the CSX Virginia Avenue Tunnel expansion years before the project’s environmental review. The newly-produced, 130,000+ page administrative record for the case reveals extensive behind-the-scenes negotiations in which DDOT and other executive branch officials dangled NEPA approval as an incentive for lucrative bargains with CSX, hidden from public view.

As one example, on January 20, 2010, DDOT’s head of Policy and Planning advised DDOT Director Gabe Klein that DDOT should determine “what leverage we have with the Virginia Avenue tunnel… and how we can use that [against CSX] for other acquisitions.”

On May 27, 2010, Steven Seigel, Development Director for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, asked Klein, “Does DDOT need anything from CSX? They’re asking for an easement from the District and it is really important to them. So, speak now.” DDOT provided its wish list, including desired easements and land. Barely a month later, DDOT agreed to work on CSX’s behalf to support the tunnel expansion.

In an August 2012 agreement, CSX made a “donation” of an unspecified amount to the District. That agreement has not yet been produced.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), which was supposed to be the lead federal agency for the Environmental review process, had grave misgivings about the claims and language CSX’s consultants were using in the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the administrative record shows. But instead of performing its own studies to verify or dispute the claims, FHWA advised CSX on how to change the language to avoid making the Environmental Impact Statement appear so biased in favor of the project.

The C100 has now brought these records to the attention of the D.C. Circuit, via an emergency appeal, and to the District Court, via a motion for reconsideration. The administrative record was not available to the C100 or the District Court when that court denied the C100’s request for a preliminary injunction on April 7.

DCSafeRail supports and appreciates the dedicated efforts of the C100 to secure an honest review of the CSX expansion proposal and to bring to light an abuse of process and public trust that should deeply trouble anyone who values an open and transparent government.

The C100’s Emergency Motion to the D.C. Circuit is available at

DCSafeRail is a coalition of citizens, organizations, and elected officials asking for accountability and oversight in ensuring the community’s health, safety, and security in the proposed CSX expansion in the District.

C100 Appeals Denial of Motion: New Revelations Show CSX’s DDOT Approval Was Predetermined

C100 Appeals Denial of Motion for Preliminary Injunction

to the Federal Court of Appeals

Asks that Permitting and Construction of the

Virginia Avenue Tunnel be Stopped

PRESS RELEASE                                      Contact:      Monte Edwards
For Immediate Release                                        

May 4, 2015                                                                  202/543-3504                  



The Committee of 100 on the Federal City continues its pursuit of a court order that would effectively stop the CSX tunnel expansion project under Virginia Avenue SE, in Washington, D.C. The Committee has appealed the District Court’s denial of a Preliminary Injunction to the US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.  The appeal includes an Emergency Motion to reverse the District Court’s decision and suspend the effectiveness of the Environmental Impact Statement, thereby preventing construction of CSX’s Virginia Avenue Tunnel until the Court can issue a decision on the merits of the case. The appeal argues that the District Court applied an overly strict standard to the Committee’s claim that the outcome of the National Environmental Policy Act process was determined before the environmental analysis was concluded.


The Court’s predetermination standard would permit an agency to enter into agreements and accept all manner of valuable inducements that lock it into a course of action.  If allowed to stand, the District Court’s decision would erode the integrity of the NEPA process because it seriously undermines the “hard look” required by the National Environmental Policy Act and implementing regulations.


Neither the District Court nor the Committee of 100 had access to the full record in the case, which consisted of over 130,000 pages, until April 23, 2015. The record contains persuasive evidence of improper predetermination that was not available to the District Court when it denied the Committee of 100’s Motion for a Preliminary Motion on April 7, 2015.  In its appeal, The Committee of 100 has now brought those improprieties to the attention of the Court of Appeals and is also seeking reconsideration from the District Court.


A pdf of the Emergency Motion is enclosed with this press release.





Byron W. Adams


Committee of 100 on the Federal City

Download the appeal as a full-text PDF here:

 Filed Motion for Stay and Reversal

Hill Rag: What is DC Doing to Insure Rail Safety? “Not Much.”

Capitol Hill’s Hill Rag asks what DC government is doing to insure freight rail safety in our nation’s capitol. The answer? “Not much.” Read below or follow this link for the full, disturbing story.

Making Rail Freight Safe in The District

Thu, 01/29/2015 – 10:36am
Managing the Tiny Risk of a Enormous Catastrophe


- See more at:

As DC lawmakers consider legislation to implement an inspection program for rail freight passing through the Nation’s Capital, the question naturally arises: What has the local government historically done to protect communities and historic structures from a catastrophic train wreck or toxic spill?

The answer, unsettling as it may sound, is: Not much.

CSX Transportation, the company that owns, operates and maintains some 70 miles of track in the District, says it handles 375,000 carloads of freight per year, including cars, consumer goods, agriculture products and coal. The company has about 50 employees to oversee its operations.

Two of the CSX lines, one coming from the direction of Rockville, MD, the other from Baltimore, converge at Union Station, where they are routed through the First Street Tunnel, over the Long Railroad Bridge and into Virginia, according to a map provided by CSX. A third line branches off the latter near Hyattsville, where it then heads south, runs parallel to the Anacostia Freeway, crosses the Anacostia River near the Navy Yard, passes through a tunnel under the U.S. Capitol, and merges with the first line near L’Enfant Plaza before crossing the Long Bridge.

The CSX rail lines travel through Wards 5, 6 and 7, where, in 2007, a major derailment sent 600 tons of coal into the Anacostia River. The incident resulted from a failure to secure the brakes of an 89-car freight train that collapsed a bridge in Anacostia Park, according to news reports at the time. CSX eventually paid the District a $650,000 settlement to create a $500,000 environment endowment fund and resolve alleged safety violations and costs for emergency response and restoration of natural resources.

An investigative report by the News 4 I-Team last week further highlighted safety risks of hazardous materials moving through the District. The report pointed to CSX derailments in Rosedale, MD, in 2013, and Lynchburg, VA, last April, both of which resulted in dangerous fires.

Though CSX officials told the I-Team that it stopped shipping chlorine, ammonia and other explosives through the District in 2004, reporters recently observed placards for molten sulfur, ammonium nitrate and molten phenol on its rail cars — materials that call for a mile-wide evacuation zone that encompasses the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol, the Navy Yard, 10 Metro stations, Interstates 395 and 295, and federal buildings south of the National Mall.

CSX went to federal court in 2005 to challenge a District ban on shipping hazardous materials, and the court agreed that the law does not prohibit such shipments. When asked about its current protocols for ensuring safe passage of hazardous materials, the D.C. Department of Transportation said in an email last week: “The city has left [rail safety] inspections to the rail companies and federal agencies since ultimately the [federal government] has enforcement power. It’s not required by each state.”

DDOT referred further questions to the DC Homeland Security Emergency Management Agency and DC Fire and EMS. In an email, a spokesman for HSEMA said the agency coordinates with CSX and FEMS by providing “situational awareness” on hazardous materials, but that it has no regulatory oversight over the rail line itself. FEMS has authority over hazardous material incidents that occur in the District, the spokesman said, and trains CSX employees on emergency response procedures.

FEMS officials did not respond to a request for comment.

Rob Doolittle, a spokesman for CSX, said the company works with DC agencies to ensure they have the information needed to protect the public’s interests. The company evaluates 27 factors recommended by the U.S. Department of Transportation to determine the safest routes for any given shipment, he said, noting there have been no incidents in the District since 2007. “Rail transportation remains the safest means available for transporting hazardous materials, and safety is CSX’s highest priority,” Doolittle said.

State Rail Safety Participation Program

So how do other states approach the issue of rail safety?

Authority for railroad safety inspections rests with the Federal Railroad Administration, under the jurisdiction of the USDOT, which requires FRA to conduct oversight of rail freight through unannounced inspections and audits and to take enforcement action as appropriate.

The FRA also works in conjunction with at least 30 states through the State Rail Safety Participation program, which allows state inspectors to receive training in the same disciplines as federal inspectors and to report findings to the FRA database.

DC is the only jurisdiction in the mid-Atlantic region that does not already participate in the program.

Inspectors with Virginia’s Division of Utility and Railroad Safety investigate accidents and inspect railroad tracks, bridges, rail cars and locomotives to ensure compliance with FRA standards on major and short line railroads over thousands of miles of track, according to Ken Schrad, a spokesman for the State Corporation Commission.

The division has five employees who conduct inspections and one administrator who monitors more than 3,500 miles of track, Schrad said. In 2014, the division inspected more than 10,000 “track units,” which include miles of track, freight records, grade crossings, locomotives, rail cars and power equipment, he said, noting that last year inspectors found more than 5,000 defects, cited 20 violations and investigated 22 accidents and 20 complaints. Inspectors also assess switchyards, field offices, yard offices and dispatching areas for compliance with FRA regulations.

In Maryland, where the memory of the 2001 Howard Street Tunnel fire still haunts, three inspectors conduct roughly 650 inspections per year, according to Chief Railroad Inspector Charles Rogers. “If we find something broken on the locomotive, rail car or track, we notify the railroad and they fix it,” he said, adding that measuring the program’s effectiveness is an elusive task. “It’s hard to prove a negative,” he said.

A philosophical attitude seems to come from experience — something that DC lacks. One former Pennsylvania railroad safety inspector, who has since returned to the private sector, said that 2013 was the safest in rail history. (Figures for 2014 have not been released.) A more pressing concern, the former inspector said, is holding on to qualified people, as government salaries can be as low as $40,000 a year. “Government inspectors do what industry inspectors do,” he said, “but you can make into six-figures if you’re working for the railroad.”

Rodney Bender, manager of the transportation division for the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, said salary disparity could be a challenge in DC, due to the cost of living. His state has more miles of railroad track than almost any other state except California, with eight inspectors trying to inspect 20,000 rail cars and 400 locomotives per year, over 1,500 miles of main line track and 50 miles of yard track.

“California has something like 30 inspectors,” Bender said, acknowledging his outfit’s relatively small size. “But rail safety has improved, and we feel like we’re part of that.” Bender’s colleague, FRA Program Manager Lugene Bastian, is not swayed when a reporter suggests that although the risks may have decreased, the stakes are high, particularly in capital cities.

“Right behind the state capitol is the Harrisburg Rail Yard, and it’s six miles long,” said Bastian. “Across the river is the Enola Yard, one of the oldest in the country. These crude oil trains pass right by every day. You could probably see the engineer in the cab if you’ve got good eyesight.”

Yet Pennsylvania experienced just “a few derailments” last year and no leaks, she said. “It has the potential to be ugly, but it’s still one of the safest ways to move more products.”

Legislative Reform in DC

DC Council members have acknowledged the District’s regulatory shortcomings. The Rail Safety and Security Oversight Agency Establishment Act of 2015, introduced January 6 by Ward 6 Council member Charles Allen, Ward 3 member Mary Cheh and At-Large member David Grosso, proposes to tighten rail cargo transparency and reporting rules by requiring the District to conduct rail security inspections, coordinate those activities with neighboring jurisdictions and report hazardous cargo to the FRA.

“I don’t think DC is prepared to know what is happening on the rail lines and it is not prepared to respond and manage the system the way it should or could,” Allen said last week. Allen was at a Council hearing last year and was struck by all the finger-pointing after questions arose about what travels through the city. “The hearing showed me that no one is in charge,” he said. “We need to know that DC has a plan for rail safety. This creates a new system of accountability to know what’s on the rails and to have some degree of oversight on what we don’t want.”

Residents in neighborhoods where CSX operates are keenly interested to see how the Council handles the measure.

Ward 6 resident Maureen Cohen Harrington has testified before the DC Council, urging mandates for staffing, risk assessment and reduction, adequate funding, performance standards and transparency measures. “On one level it’s a big ‘Duh,’” Harrington said. “It’s inconceivable that it ever passed the laugh test [to not have a program].”

Monte Edwards, a Ward 6 resident who, like Harrington, sits on the Federal City Committee of 100, criticized the District for not imposing speed limits, operational requirements and rail inspections. Edwards is working with Allen’s office to study how the proposed legislation differs from what other states do. “Federal certified inspectors get a car-by-car look at rail cargo,” Edwards said. “We’d have the right to see what is coming into our city in real time.”

Ward 7 residents have reason to support the bill as well. Dennis Chestnut, executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River, DC, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, said CSX trains carrying “all kinds of chemicals” are within the evacuation zone of Historic Anacostia, Metro lines, schools, businesses and residences. The community already is plagued by toxic sites, said Chestnut, pointing to the Kenilworth Landfill, the former PEPCO plant and Poplar Point, where vacated greenhouses once used by the US Department of Agriculture sit and deteriorate.

“The area is saturated with people,” Chestnut said. “An accident involving hazardous material would be horrendous.”

Doolittle, the CSX spokesman, said the company is sensitive to community concerns about the shipment of hazardous materials. “We are currently evaluating the proposed rail-safety legislation and will provide comments as the DC legislative process moves forward,” he said.

Council member Cheh did not respond to a request for comment. Council member Grosso’s office said he was not available at press time for this article.

Aside from HSEMA and FEMS, the other District agency with any authority over rail cargo is the DC Department of the Environment, but that is in reaction to a spill caused by derailment or other malfunction. DDOE Director Tommy Wells said DC has lacked a rail safety oversight program because it is not a port city, was under federal control until 1975, and still has a unique relationship with the federal government.

Wells said he supports creating an inspection program but with some consideration of “what problem we are solving.” He said HSEMA has “semi-confidential” access to information about hazardous materials passing through the District, and that to assume they are not doing some level of inspection “is probably not true.” Besides, he said, the chemicals noted by the News 4 trainspotters were low ignition: “We do have molten sulphur, and if it spilled it would be a smelly mess, but that would be more of an environmental issue. And just because we haven’t been a part of the FRA program does not mean CSX gets a pass on meeting federal safety requirements.”

To Allen, the devil is in the details, and looking to the FRA participation program is only the beginning of a long-overdue process. “As we go through the legislative route it will allow us to hear from more experts to see what is needed and how to implement it.”

- See more at:

NBC4 Spotlights Wide Hazmat Threat from CSX Expansion & Murky Money Trail between CSX and DDOT

For Release: January 12, 2015

Contact: Natalie Skidmore, 202.657.1911, Twitter @DCSafeRail,


NBC4 Spotlights Wide Hazmat Threat from CSX Expansion &

Murky Money Trail between CSX and DDOT


Chairman Mendelson Calls for Rerouting Around District


In the three-part I-Team series that aired on January 7th and 8th, NBC4 Investigative Reporter Tisha Thompson highlighted the huge blast and evacuation zone for hazardous cargo that CSX routinely carries through the District. The evacuation zone is a mile-wide for materials – including molten sulfur, ammonium nitrate, and molten phenol – that the I-Team spotted on CSX trains traveling through the city’s monument core. That evacuation zone includes the U.S. Capitol, numerous federal buildings, national landmarks on the Mall, 395, 295, and 10 metro stations. Hazardous materials will travel through the District in much greater quantities, and at higher speeds, if CSX is allowed to build new twin tunnels in southeast.


The I-Team also found a murky money trail between CSX and the District Department of Transportation. DDOT refused to explain inconsistencies in the documents that it provided in response to the I-Team’s Freedom of Information Act Request. That prompted Council Chairman Phil Mendelson to recall DDOT’s “gag order” restricting witnesses at Council hearings about the CSX expansion.


Chairman Mendelson told Thompson that these chemicals shouldn’t move through the city at all. “It does not have to come through here,” he said. “It’s not that complicated. Just reroute that hazardous material which has an evacuation area that includes the Capitol.” The Council is trying to reduce risks through rail safety legislation introduced on January 6 by Councilmembers Mary Cheh (who chairs the transportation committee), Charles Allen (whose Ward 6 includes the CSX tunnel), and David Grosso (at-large). The Council is also preparing a District Rail Plan.


The Committee of 100 on the Federal City has sued to stop the CSX expansion, saying that the environmental review process and the hidden grant of new right of way to CSX violated federal and city law. The lawsuit will examine DDOT’s pre-approval of the expansion, before the environmental review had even begun, and the exchanges of money between CSX and DDOT.


On February 17, the court will hear arguments about the C100’s motion for a preliminary injunction to halt permits and construction for the CSX twin tunnels pending the final outcome of the litigation.


Links to the entire NBC4 I-Team Series, and a map of the evacuation zone, are available at

Download the PDF of the press release here: SafeRail NBC4 PreRel 1-12-15

NBC 4 Investigative Report Shows CSX Rails Pose Hazmat Risks to DC


WRC TV, NBC Channel 4 in Washington DC, sent their award-winning investigative reporting team to explore the risks and coverups surrounding CSX’s plans to expand the Virginia Avenue Tunnel and freight rail capacity in Washington DC.

  • Did shady backroom deals happen between CSX and DDOT?
  • Why aren’t DDOT and CSX answering the DC Council’s questions?
  • Exactly which toxic and explosive materials is CSX already transporting through Capitol Hill?
  • If DC were to have a CSX derailment (like that which occurred last year in Lynchburg, VA), what would be the potential blast zone?
  • Is your home or workplace at risk?

What they discovered should make every DC resident and worker demand the VA Avenue Tunnel project be stopped until the DC Council’s fully-funded Rail Plan is completed and a Safety Office implemented to protect the people and institutions of our nation’s capital.

NBC4: January 7 at 6:00 PM – Dangerous Cargo: Hazardous Materials that Travel Through D.C.

Direct link to video

Are you in a potential blast zone? Direct link to evacuation map

NBC4: January 7 at 11:00 PM – Neighbors, Lawmakers Losing Faith in DDOT

Direct link to video

NBC4: January 8 at 6:00 PM – D.C. Lawmakers Want Rail Safety Office

Direct link to video

DC Residents Demand Safety and the Reasons are Clear: “Trains Plus Crude Oil Equal Trouble Along the Tracks”

DC residents are demanding safety and transparency from CSX and other railways for reasons that are becoming more and more obvious, as this article makes clear: “Trains Plus Crude Oil Equal Trouble Along the Tracks.” Freight rail along the monument core, a densely packed urban neighborhood, and a few blocks from the US Capitol and the treasures of the Library of Congress? That poses a real risk that should make DC and federal officials think twice.

Tribune News Service, 1/5/2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Every day, strings of black tank cars filled with crude oil roll slowly across a long wooden railroad bridge over the Black Warrior River.

The 116-year-old bridge is a landmark in this city of 95,000 people, home to the University of Alabama. Residents have proposed and gotten married next to the bridge. Children play under it. During Alabama football season, Crimson Tide fans set up camp in its shadow.

But with some timber pilings so badly rotted that you can stick your hand through them, and a combination of plywood, concrete and plastic pipe employed to patch up others, the bridge shows the limited ability of government and industry to manage the hidden risks of a sudden shift in energy production.

And it shows why communities nationwide are in danger.

On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire.© Curtis Tate/McClatchy DC/TNS

On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire.”It may not happen today or tomorrow, but one day a town or a city is going to get wiped out,” said Larry Mann, one of the foremost authorities on rail safety, who, as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill in 1970, was the principal author of the Federal Railroad Safety Act.

Almost overnight in 2010, trains began crisscrossing the country carrying an energy bounty that includes millions of gallons of crude oil and ethanol. Tens of thousands of tank cars and a 140,000-mile network of rail lines emerged as a practically way to move these commodities. But few thought to step back and take a hard look at the industry’s readiness for the job.

Government and industry are playing catch-up with long-overdue safety improvements, like redesigning tank cars and rebuilding tracks and bridges.

Those efforts in the past year and a half may have saved lives and property in many communities. But they came too late for Lac-Megantic, Quebec, a lakeside resort town just across the Canadian border from Maine. A train derailment there on July 6, 2013, unleashed a torrent of burning crude oil into the town’s center. Forty-seven people were killed.

“Sometimes it takes a disaster to get elected officials and agencies to address problems that were out there,” said Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees railroads, pipelines and hazardous materials.

Decaying track and bridge conditions on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa, Ala., population 95,000.© Curtis Tate/McClatchy DC/TNS Decaying track and bridge conditions on the Alabama southern railroad could pose a risk to Tuscaloosa, Ala., population 95,000.Other subsequent but nonfatal derailments in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and Lynchburg, Va., followed a familiar pattern: huge fires and spills, large-scale evacuations and local officials furious that they hadn’t been told beforehand of such shipments.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will issue new rules this month to govern the transportation of flammable liquids by rail.

“Safety is our top priority,” said Kevin Thompson, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration,”both in the rule-making and through other immediate actions we have taken over the last year and a half.”

Nevertheless, there are other gaps in the oversight of transporting oil by rail:

—The Federal Railroad Administration entrusts bridge inspections to the railroads and doesn’t keep data on their condition, unlike how its sister agency, the Federal Highway Administration, does so for road bridges.

—Most states don’t employ dedicated railroad-bridge inspectors. Only California has begun developing a bridge-inspection program.

— The U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that crude oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale region posed an elevated risk in rail transport, so regulators required railroads to notify state officials of large shipments of Bakken crude. However, the requirement excluded other kinds of oil shipments by raid, including those from Canada, Texas, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah.

—While railroads and refiners are reserving the newest, sturdiest tank cars available for Bakken trains, they, too, have ruptured in derailments, and Bakken and other kinds of oil are likely to be moving around the country in a mix of older and newer cars for several more years.

BNSF crude oil trains pass each other in Galesburg, Ill.© Curtis Tate/McClatchy DC/TNS BNSF crude oil trains pass each other in Galesburg, Ill.

U.S. railroads moved only 9,500 cars of crude oil in 2008 but more than 400,000 in 2013, according to industry figures. In the first seven months of 2014, trains carried 759,000 barrels a day on more than 200,000 cars — 8 percent of the country’s oil production, according to the federal Energy Information Administration.

The energy boom, centered on North Dakota’s Bakken region, was made possible by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a horizontal drilling method that unlocks oil and gas trapped in rock formations. It was also made possible by the nation’s extensive rail system.

Crude by rail has become profitable for some of the world’s richest men. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor, bought BNSF Railway in 2009. It’s since become the nation’s leading hauler of crude oil in trains. Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist, is the largest shareholder in Canadian National, the only rail company that has a direct route from oil-rich western Canada to the refinery-rich Gulf Coast.

Although the price of oil has fallen more than 50 percent since last January and rapidly in recent weeks, crude by rail shows few signs of slowing down. The six largest North American railroads reported hauling a record 38,775 carloads of petroleum in the second week of December.

“We anticipate that crude by rail is going to stay over the long term,” said Kevin Birn, director at IHS Energy, an information and analysis firm and a co-author of a recent analysis of the trend.

Regulatory agencies and the rail industry may not have anticipated the sudden increase in crude oil moving by rail. However, government and industry had long known that most of the tank cars pressed into crude oil service had poor safety records. And after 180 years in business, U.S. railroads knew that track defects were a leading cause of derailments.

Railroads are taking corrective steps, including increased track inspections and reduced train speeds. They have endorsed stronger tank cars and funded more training for first responders.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for the Association of American Railroads, the industry’s principal trade group, said railroads began a “top-to-bottom review” of their operations after the Quebec accident.

“Every time there is an incident, the industry learns from what occurred and takes steps to address it through ongoing investments into rail infrastructure, as well as cutting-edge research and development,” he said. “The industry is committed to continuous improvement in actively moving forward at making rail transportation even safer.”

But the industry continues to resist other changes, including calls for more transparency. The dominant Eastern railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, sued Maryland to stop the state from releasing information about crude-oil trains.

The industry also seeks affirmation from the courts that only the federal government has the power to regulate railroads. The dominant Western carriers, BNSF and Union Pacific, joined by the Association of American Railroads, sued California over a state law that requires them to develop comprehensive oil spill-response plans.

After a CSX crude oil train derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va., last April 30, spilling 30,000 gallons of Bakken crude into the James River, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued an emergency order: Railroads carrying more than 1 million gallons of Bakken crude, or about 35 tank cars full, were required to begin notifying state emergency-response commissions where and how often such shipments move so communities could better prepare for accidents.

The railroads, used to keeping such information close to the vest, asked state officials to sign nondisclosure agreements, treat the reports as confidential and limit their release to those with “a need to know.”

Some states agreed, and the Transportation Department voiced no objections. Others, however, declined to sign the agreements, finding no reason to exempt the oil-train reports from their open-records laws.

Full or partial Bakken train reports from 22 states show an estimated range of how many Bakken trains pass through each county each week, and the routes they use. Some states, such as Virginia and New York, released all the details. Illinois didn’t reveal the routes. Alabama and New Jersey disclosed only the counties the trains pass through, not the routes or frequency.

Having lost the fight in California, Washington state and elsewhere, some railroads continued to press their case in other states that the reports were security and commercially sensitive. After the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency denied McClatchy’s request for reports in July, McClatchy appealed the decision to the state’s Office of Open Records.

In October, the open records office ordered the emergency management agency to release the records. Soon thereafter, the agency posted them in full on its website.

In July, the Maryland Department of the Environment was about to release the Bakken reports to McClatchy when two railroads, Norfolk Southern and CSX, sued the state to block the release.

The Federal Railroad Administration all but put the issue to rest in October. In guidance published in the Federal Register, the agency said no federal law protected the Bakken train reports from public disclosure, and that the information they contained was neither security nor commercially sensitive.

Delaware, West Virginia, Idaho and Tennessee, which denied requests for records outright, haven’t reconsidered since the federal guidance was issued. Texas has not decided on how much information, if any, to release.

Greenberg, of the Association of American Railroads, said the industry remained concerned that publicly releasing the information “elevates security risks by making it easier for someone intent on causing harm.” The reports “should remain with local, state and federal emergency responders,” he added.

The reports show concentrated streams of Bakken traffic from North Dakota to the Mid-Atlantic, Gulf Coast and Pacific Northwest regions. The reports do not, however, show smaller quantities of Bakken or any quantity of other kinds of crude oil shipped by rail. Individual railroads may be notifying emergency responders of such cargoes, but, at least for now, they aren’t required to do so.

The Federal Railroad Administration has sought comment on whether the reporting threshold should be lower and include other types of crude oil.

Thompson, the railroad administration spokesman, said the emergency order in May was meant to be “a powerful but narrowly constructed tool to address an imminent hazard,” the one presented by Bakken crude.

“It was and remains an interim step in our ongoing effort to ensure the safe transport of crude by rail,” he said.

In March, emergency-response officials in Sacramento, Calif., were stunned to learn that the decommissioned McClellan Air Force Base on the city’s northwest side had become a transfer point for crude oil.

After a reporter told him about the facility, the city’s interim fire chief sent his battalion chief and a hazardous-materials inspector to the site, where they found 22 tank cars loaded with crude oil. The facility had been operating for several months, without the knowledge of local fire chiefs or the county emergency manager. It had also been operating without a permit from the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District, apparently in violation of California’s environmental laws.

The same week the Sacramento Bee published a story in late March revealing its existence, the facility received a permit to transfer 11 million gallons of crude oil a month from trains to trucks.

In September, EarthJustice, a San Francisco-based environmental group, sued the air quality management district, challenging its decision to issue the permit without public comment or an environmental-impact review.

In October, Sacramento County’s top air-quality official rescinded the permit, acknowledging that its approval was a mistake. The McClellan transfer operation closed down in mid-November.

Two or three Bakken trains a month are moving through California’s capital to other destinations, and area officials are bracing for a big increase: The California Energy Commission projects that rail could deliver 22 percent of the state’s petroleum needs in a few years.

In response to growing concern about emergency preparedness, the rail industry established a training program at its research and testing facility in Pueblo, Colo.

Since classes began in July, the nation’s largest railroads have spent $5 million to train 1,500 emergency-response personnel at the school. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., persuaded the Federal Emergency Management Agency to contribute another $5 million to continue the program.

“Our emergency responders are often our first line of defense — and they usually do it without pay,” Heitkamp said in a written statement. “It’s on all of us to make sure they have the training and resources they need to protect our families and communities.”

Individual railroads also bring training to many communities along their routes. CSX, for example, recently concluded an 18-city tour with its Safety Train, a mobile classroom that educates first responders on the basics of responding to rail accidents. The railroad said 2,200 responders from 350 departments participated.

But the training may have its limits.

The National Fire Protection Association estimated that in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were about 1.1 million firefighters spread across 30,000 departments. More than 800,000 of them were volunteers. Nationwide, volunteer departments have turnover rates of 20 percent to 50 percent.

Steve LoPresti, the hazardous-materials chief for Montgomery County Emergency Medical Services in suburban Philadelphia, said his department was all-volunteer. The department has a “robust” training schedule, he said, and has worked with other agencies and railroads hauling crude oil through the county.

But it can be tough for volunteers to take the time off for training, even if someone pays for it.

“They have full-time jobs, maybe part-time jobs,” LoPresti said. “They’re family men. They have other responsibilities.”

Lac-Megantic showed the enormous risk that even the best-trained firefighters might face. In Senate testimony last April, Tim Pellerin, a Maine fire chief whose department assisted its Quebec neighbor, said it had taken 1,000 firefighters from 80 departments on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border 30 hours, a million gallons of water and 8,000 gallons of firefighting foam to bring the fire under control.

Rick Edinger, assistant chief of the Chesterfield County, Va., Fire and EMS department and a hazardous-materials expert who testified on oil-train fires at the National Transportation Safety Board in April, said most departments were capable of responding to an incident involving a 9,000-gallon gasoline-tanker truck. But one rail car can hold as much as 30,000 gallons. A 100-car oil train could contain 3 million gallons.

“Once you reach that point of no return,” he said, “it doesn’t matter what the volume is.”

A common thread runs through the Lac-Megantic, Aliceville and Casselton derailments: the workhorse DOT-111 tank car. The NTSB has been warning about it for decades.

The car is minimally reinforced and has a well-documented tendency to puncture or rupture in derailments.

A series of explosions from the late 1960s to the late 1970s killed dozens of people, including railroad workers and first responders, prompting an overhaul of the pressurized tank cars then used to haul flammable and toxic gases with many of the same features now being discussed.

The problems subsided by the early 1980s. But unlike those overhauled cars, the DOT-111 wasn’t similarly retrofitted. It continued to fail catastrophically in derailments that involved flammable or poisonous liquids, as three decades of NTSB accident reports show.

Many of those accidents — including ones in Newark, N.J., in 1981m Dunsmuir, Calif., in 1991 and Baltimore in 2001 — were caused by track defects or human error. But in report after report, the NTSB warned that the design of the DOT-111 tank car increased the severity of these accidents.

About a decade ago, railroads began transporting large volumes of ethanol, a renewable, highly flammable alternative fuel. Rail transportation of ethanol increased over several years, peaking at 360,000 carloads in 2011. At least seven fiery derailments from 2006 to 2012 involved ethanol transported in DOT-111 cars.

In June 2009, a Canadian National train derailed on washed-out track at a road crossing at Cherry Valley, Ill. Multiple DOT-111 tank cars punctured, spilling more than 300,000 gallons of ethanol. A woman was killed when fire engulfed her vehicle at the crossing.

The Association of American Railroads petitioned the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in March 2011 for an improved tank-car design. About a year later, Deborah Hersman, the NTSB chairman at the time, wrote to Cynthia Quarterman, who was then the head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, pleading for improvements to the DOT-111. In her reply, Quarterman concurred with Hersman but expressed concerns about the cost.

Two months after Lac-Megantic went up in flames in July 2013, Quarterman’s agency released its Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the first step in a usually lengthy process.

Last July, the Transportation Department proposed a 2017 deadline to phase out or retrofit the DOT-111 fleet. But for now, the car is ubiquitous in crude oil and ethanol trains nationwide.

Among other steps taken by the department in 2014, the Federal Railroad Administration’s Thompson noted, the agency “issued a safety advisory requesting companies to take all possible steps to avoid using DOT-111 tank cars when transporting Bakken crude.”

That wasn’t enough to satisfy environmental groups, which petitioned the Transportation Department for an immediate ban on DOT-111 cars hauling Bakken crude oil. When the department denied the petition, the groups sued.

Railroads generally don’t own the tank cars used to transport oil by train.

Since the more recent high-profile accidents, many refiners have chose to go with the higher standard the rail industry adopted voluntarily in 2011, with thicker shells and extra shielding on the ends of the cars and features that protect top and bottom valves in case of a derailment.

BNSF and Canadian Pacific, two of the biggest Bakken haulers, have imposed surcharges on crude oil shippers who use pre-2011 tank cars.

However, the oil and rail industry’s principal trade groups have requested that regulators give them more time to phase out the cars. Under both government and industry proposals, the cars with the fewest protections could remain in crude oil service through 2020.

The $1.1 trillion spending bill Congress approved in December includes a requirement that the DOT issue its final rule by Jan. 15.

Even the newer cars have vulnerabilities. Post-2011 cars involved in a derailment last January in New Augusta, Miss., spilled 50,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude.

So did at least one newer car in Lynchburg, which released its entire contents of Bakken crude into the James River, most of which burned.

Some of the most vocal advocates for a faster retrofitting or retirement of the DOT-111 tank cars are elected leaders in cities and towns. Karen Darch, the village president of Barrington, Ill., a Chicago suburb, has testified on Capitol Hill and submitted comments to regulators. Two busy rail lines intersect in her community, and trains carrying crude oil and ethanol pass very close to homes, businesses and schools.

In Tuscaloosa, repairs have begun on the century-old bridge. But its condition had received less attention from local, state and federal authorities, and the railroad that maintains it, before crude oil trains began rolling over its rotting timbers in 2013.

The local industrial development authority gave $785,000 in tax abatements to the Hunt Refining Co. of Houston to build a two-track rail terminal capable of unloading 600,000 gallons of crude oil a day at its Tuscaloosa refinery.

Mike Smith, a lawyer for the agency, said its jurisdiction didn’t extend beyond the refinery and that it had no authority to evaluate the condition of, or require repairs to, the rail infrastructure that leads to it. A spokeswoman for Hunt Refining declined to comment.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management quickly approved Hunt’s permits to build and operate the terminal, with no public comment or review. A spokesman for the department didn’t return phone calls seeking comment.

The Federal Railroad Administration doesn’t inspect bridges. Railroads have that responsibility.

The Alabama Southern Railroad, which is owned by Watco, a company headquartered in Pittsburg, Kan., maintains the Tuscaloosa bridge and the track that runs across it. Regulators have cited the company many times over the years for safety violations. Federal Railroad Administration inspection reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request show that inspectors recommended penalties for Alabama Southern 15 times from January 2006 to September 2013.

In June, an Alabama Southern train carrying crude oil derailed in Buhl, Ala., about 12 miles west of Tuscaloosa. Though nothing spilled, seven battered tank cars remained on the ground for the next two months, a short distance from people’s front porches.

Tracie VanBecelaere, a Watco spokeswoman, said the company would spend as much as $17 million over three years in new rail, ties and ballast on the 62-mile Alabama Southern line between Tuscaloosa and Columbus, Miss.

In late October, bundles of new crossties lined the track near a road crossing in Northport, across the river from Tuscaloosa. Tie replacements “will continue for several months,” VanBecelaere said.

She said the track was inspected more thoroughly than federal law required and was checked ultrasonically for internal defects twice a year.

The old bridge is getting a $2.5 million overhaul as part of the same project, VanBecelaere said. She said it had passed an inspection over the summer.

John Wathen, an environmentalist who monitored the condition of the rail infrastructure around Tuscaloosa for the past year, wonders whether it’s enough.

“The repairs I see them making right now are more like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound,” he said.

October is a busy time in Tuscaloosa, with Alabama football season in full swing. One home-game weekend this past season, , there were no hotel rooms available within 50 miles of the city. Tuscaloosa’s population expands on home-game days. The university’s Bryant-Denny Stadium can hold more than 100,000 people.

The railroad bridge is perhaps more than a mile from the stadium, as the crow flies. Across the river in Northport, a camp of recreational vehicles owned by football fans is just 50 feet from the bridge. The city council allows the tailgaters to park their campers there for the entire season.

The 7,500-seat Tuscaloosa Amphitheater is near the bridge on the opposite bank. The Oliver Lock and Dam, a popular fishing spot, is about half a mile downriver.

Thousands more people descend on Northport in October for the annual Kentuck Festival of the Arts.

Most Tuscaloosa residents know about the bridge and some have stories about how it intersects with their lives. But few know about the hazardous cargo that creeps across it in slow-moving trains, with them the potential for disaster.

And Tuscaloosa knows disaster. On April 27, 2011, a powerful tornado, with winds of 190 mph, ripped through the city, chewing up neighborhoods, schools and shopping centers. Of the 65 Alabamians killed by the tornado that day, 52 were in Tuscaloosa.

Wathen worries that if an oil train derailed on or near the bridge, it wouldn’t take long for the spilled cargo to reach the Black Warrior River. Once it reached the dam, Wathen said, it would be virtually impossible to clean up, no matter what kind of oil it was.

“It would be an environmental catastrophe,” he said.

Wathen has other fears. In addition to the 47 fatalities, the derailment and fire in Lac-Megantic destroyed 50 buildings, consuming the heart of the city’s business district.

“Lay that footprint over Tuscaloosa or Northport,” Wathen said. “Nothing would have survived within the fire footprint. We’ve seen that already.”