In an apparent attempt to ease health and safety concerns over CSX Corp.’s plan to reconstruct a freight train tunnel in Southeast D.C., the U.S. Department of Transportation on Friday said the company would offer money to the residents most harmed by the project.
But residents are not taking the bait, saying the money is not worth the risk the project poses to their lives and livelihoods.
“It’s an insult,” said Maureen Cohen Harrington, whose home would border the trench that CSX plans to dig so that freight trains can run while it reconstructs the Virginia Avenue Tunnel. “These amounts give no recognition to the relentless and overwhelming disruption this will cause, or to the lethal risk that it will present.”
Residents are concerned that CSX’s freight trains — which sometimes carry crude oil and other hazardous materials — are at an increased risk of derailment while running through an open trench alongside the tunnel, which is next to an elevated highway and numerous homes.
The offer of compensation was part of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the long-proposed Virginia Avenue Tunnel project, which if approved, would reconstruct and expand the century-old tunnel in the recently-revitalized Navy Yard neighborhood. In the FEIS, the U.S. and D.C. Departments of Transportation recommended a build-option that would see trains running in a mostly-closed trench during construction. However, trains would still run in an open trench for approximately 230 feet, immediately east of the tunnel’s portal on 2nd street SE.
For homeowners who live directly adjacent to the major construction, the DOT offered compensation from CSX of $500 per month for the duration of the project, a maximum period of 42 months. It also offered separate compensation for residents of the Arthur Capper Apartments, a low-income public housing unit for senior citizens that would be about 30 feet from the proposed trench. The building would receive a one-time payment of $250,000 in order to “offset temporary inconvenience” and “support community enhancements.”
But Helen Douglas, a resident of Arthur Capper who has been one of the leading opponents of the project, says the one-time payment is premature. Because the senior center is so close to construction, she says, there is no way to know if $250,000 will be enough to cover the damage.
“This is a one time payment, an open and shut case, and there’s a million possible things that could happen,” she said. “We don’t know if there will be a derailment. We don’t know if everybody in the building is going to get respiratory problems from construction dust and die.”
“So then what, we get the $250,000 and then we can’t say anything? It’s totally unfair to offer us money ahead of time without the chance to go back around,” Douglas continued. “I don’t know what they’re trying to do, but it’s not winning any friends as far as I’m concerned.”
Though concerns over the project’s impact on air quality, vibration and noise levels have been primary concerns in the neighborhood, the possibility of derailment has arguably been the most pressing issue surrounding the proposal. Residents cite the Lac-Mégantic disaster, where a freight train carrying crude oil derailed and killed at least forty-two people, as evidence of what could happen.
But as both CSX and the DOT notes, the company does not move “unit trains” (meaning trains with only one type of cargo) of crude oil or fuel, which is the type that derailed in Lac-Mégantic. And in its report released Friday, the DOT also noted the rarity of CSX’s crude oil shipments through the District. In 2013, it said, crude oil cars represented less than 0.006 percent of all loaded rail cars that went through the Virginia Avenue Tunnel.
“CSX has no current movements of crude oil unit trains through the District of Columbia,” the report said. “There is no market for CSX to transport crude oil through the District of Columbia now, or in the foreseeable future.”
The FEIS also noted CSX’s voluntary agreement with the city not to transport the most “high-risk” explosive materials through the District.
However, CSX can still transport hazmats that are not classified as high-risk, and can still transport crude oil and fuel through the city, so long as they’re in a mixed-freight car. CSX does not disclose how and where it transports these materials to the public, for national security reasons. Additionally, the voluntary agreement to keep high-level hazmats out of the city is just that: voluntary. The company can back out of that agreement at any time, with no threat of punishment.
Because the project’s intention is to make room for double-stacked cars on a higher-speed rail line, residents fear that CSX could go back on the agreement. Paired with the fact that the FEIS acknowledges the project’s potential to affect ambient air quality levels primarily within 200 to 300 feet of construction, Harrington said $500 a month is not worth the risk.
“Those who are unable to live in these conditions, or who justifiably fear for their lives, will not be able to find alternative housing for $500 per month,” Harrington said. “Moreover, many of us — myself included — are tethered to our homes because of workforce housing requirements or affordable housing waitlists.”
Residents have been asking CSX do a larger study looking at other re-route alternatives besides the ones proposed in the FEIS, that could give CSX a feasible alternative without putting residents at risk. A study would be appropriate, Harrington said, considering the D.C. Department of Transportation is currently operating under an interim director, soon to be replaced by a new administration in January.
If that doesn’t happen, though, Harrington put forward a counteroffer: “If this project goes forward,” she said, “I hereby invite CSX CEO Michael Ward to live with me during the construction.”