Extra-Flammable Crude Oil May Soon Run Through A Trench In D.C. Neighborhood

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray listens to a concerned citizen at a public meeting about CSX's proposal to reconstruct the Virginia Avenue Tunnel on Jan. 16, 2013.

At Thursday night’s public meeting about CSX Corp.’s possible reconstruction of a D.C.-based freight train tunnel, Rhonda White was distressed.

“I am a parent of a child with special needs,” she said. “Because of this project and the effect it will have on my neighborhood, her bus won’t be able to get to her. If she has a seizure, the medical emergency assistants can’t get to her. The nurse that comes nightly cannot park on the street.”

White is one of many who lives next to a stretch of Virginia Avenue that, under a proposal by CSX, would be bowled over and dug out to make way for a large, uncovered trench. In that trench, freight trains would run in the open for at least five years while the company reconstructs and expands the century-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel. The rebuilt tunnel would require a gift of city land to the company, and construction would expand it so double-stacked cars can run through.

Since the project was officially proposed in 2011, residents of the newly-revitalized Capitol Riverfront and Navy Yard neighborhoods — which until as recently as ten years ago were largely considered industrial wastelands — have been fighting the project. Like White, they have concerns about accessibility to their front doors, air pollution, and increased vibration.

But the one thing that stands out is their fear that one of those trains carrying crude oil and hazardous materials in an open trench next to their homes might derail. And everything could be lost.

The crowd at Thursday's public meeting at 200 I St, a government building in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. Security guards had to start turning people away after more than 400 people showed up.

The crowd at Thursday’s public meeting at 200 I St, a government building in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. Security guards had to start turning people away after more than 400 people showed up.

CREDIT: Emily Atkin

Since the proposal emerged, it has been difficult to obtain information about what exactly is moved through the tunnel now, and what would be moved through the trench if the project were approved. CSX has admitted it ships crude oil and hazardous materials, but federal right-to-know laws exempt shipping companies from having to disclose to the public what exactly those hazmats are. So CSX doesn’t.

But when asked by ClimateProgress at the public meeting on Thursday, CSX Vice President of Public Safety, Health, and Environment Skip Elliott said most of the crude oil moved on CSX comes from the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. Earlier this month, coincidentally, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHSMA) announced that it would be investigating Bakken shale crude oil, warning that it could be especially flammable due to either particular properties of the oil or added chemicals from the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract it.

“Typically what we see moved on CSX is from the Bakken fields,” Elliott said, though he wouldn’t confirm whether the oil would move through the trench. “We know the PHSMA is doing testing of the crude, and it’s going to entirely up to them if they feel that that product needs to be classified as a more severe hazardous material.”

CSX says it currently has a “voluntary agreement” with the D.C. government not to bring the most hazardous explosive materials through the D.C. metro area.

“For security reasons, we don’t discuss in public the types of hazardous materials we move through the District,” Elliott said. “I told you that we move hazardous materials and have done so for many years. We understand the importance of transparency and I’m happy that we’re started discussions with the mayor’s office of homeland security and emergency management to provide them complete transparency for all the trains that move through Washington D.C.”

The public meeting with Mayor Gray was spurred by concerned residents who are now asking the mayor to strengthen the District’s role in approval of the project, which is governed by the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Because the project needs certain approvals from the D.C. Department of Transportation, the residents are asking the Mayor to direct the agency to withhold all approvals of construction permits, road closures, and possible gifts of D.C. land.

Mayor Gray told residents during the meeting that he would not approve a project that would “imperil” anyone or cut off access to emergency vehicles, saying it would “defy laws and defy common sense.” After the meeting, however, he would not indicate to ClimateProgress which way he was leaning.

“I just got into this, give me a chance to hear all the stuff. I heard a lot tonight,” he said. “I spent most of my life as an advocate … so from an emotional perspective, I get it.”