A coalition of Southeast Washington, D.C. residents said they were cautiously pleased following a Jan. 16 meeting with Mayor Vincent Gray to voice their concerns over plans by CSX Transportation to expand the Virginia Avenue Tunnel.
“After hearing our concerns he said he would not allow a proposal that would endanger the health and safety of D.C. residents…that was nice to hear,” said James McPhillips, 31, a resident of the Navy Yard neighborhood where the tunnel is located and a member of the DCSafeRail coalition. “So we’re counting on him to stick to that promise.”
McPhillips said more than 400 people attended the meeting and were “overwhelmingly” against the project. DCSafeRail, a multi-racial, multi-generational and mixed-income coalition, is opposing CSX Transportation’s proposal to rebuild and expand the 3,800-foot, century-old tunnel to accommodate two tracks and double-stacked intermodal freight trains.
Residents had a number of concerns about the project, including potential traffic congestion during its three- to six-year construction, an adverse effect on nearby businesses and the impact of vibrations on nearby structures and residents. Mostly, however, they are concerned about adverse environmental effects such as noise and air pollution and their impact on vulnerable populations including the elderly and children.
McPhillips, whose house is closest to construction site, said he and his wife had been making plans to start a family, “but our plans have been put on hold because of this.”
The community was also highly skeptical of CSX plans to transport Bakken Shale crude oil from North Dakota via the tunnel both during and after its expansion, given the occurrence of major crashes in the past year. On July 6, a train carrying 72 tanks of crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, killing 47 people and forcing the evacuation of an entire town. On Nov. 8, another crash in Aliceville, Ala. involved 11 cars. Two crashes have occurred this month, including one on Jan. 7 in New Brunswick, Canada and another on Jan. 24, when a CSX train carrying an estimated 150,000 gallons of crude derailed over the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in a Jan. 23 memo to the Federal Railway Administration said, “The sharp increase in crude oil rail shipments in recent years…has significantly increased safety risks to the public,” including “major loss of life, property damage, and environmental consequences.” Among other recommendations, the NTSB suggested rerouting rail tracks to avoid urban centers and other populated areas.
“Safety is, and will continue to be, CSX’s top priority in Washington, D.C. and in all the communities we serve,” said CSX spokeswoman Melanie Cost, in an earlier response to the community’s concerns. “CSX would maintain the high standards of safety that we operate with every day during construction and once regular tunnel operations resume.”
However, in its response to the company’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement, the Environmental Protection Agency noted several “deficiencies” and “areas of concern” including failures to adequately address “environmental justice, children’s environmental health, cumulative impacts, and community impacts, especially vibrations, parks, visual and utility disruptions.”
A spokeswoman for Gray said via e-mail that the mayor and city officials would continue to “listen and have discussions with residents and experts in determining next steps that will take into account safety and other concerns that have been raised.”