A meeting that was supposed to be for residents to talk to Environmental Protection Agency representatives about concerns surrounding a possible reconstruction of a D.C.-based freight train tunnel took an unexpected turn Saturday afternoon after the EPA failed to show up, snubbing a request from Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC).
Del. Holmes-Norton said she fully expected representatives from the EPA to show up to the public meeting, where residents were to discuss the possible reconstruction of the 110-year-old Virginia Avenue Tunnel, owned by CSX Corp. While residents are not unilaterally opposed to CSX updating its infrastructure, they are extremely concerned with the fact that the company’s only proposal to run trains in the meantime — a period of at least 5 years — is to run trains through a large, open trench, directly next to its construction of the old tunnel, next to an elevated highway, and next to their homes.
“My anger is with EPA this afternoon. I was so outraged,” Norton said. “I have never heard of an administrative agency — and I’ve been in the Congress more than 20 years — where they would not even come so that the community could hear about their comments.”
It was not immediately clear on Monday why representatives from the EPA had not shown up to the meeting. Though Norton said she had been in touch with the agency and that they had set a date, she did not specifically say that EPA had promised to be there — only that the agency “didn’t say they wouldn’t be at the meeting.” Norton did speculate that the agency might have been wary, because it is not normally asked to attend public meetings during a draft Environmental Impact Statement period.
The EPA has already made formal comments about CSX’s draft Environmental Impact Statement for the tunnel project, saying it presents “some deficiencies and areas of concern, including environmental justice, children’s environmental health, cumulative impacts and community impacts, especially vibration, parks, visual and utility disruptions.” But not all residents had read the EPA’s extensive comments, and Norton said she had called the meeting for the agency to summarize those issues for the community, particularly those surrounding children’s health.
In a statement, EPA press officer Donna Heron said the agency had followed protocol under the National Environmental Policy Act, which required it to submit comments to CSX’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, and said it wanted to wait until other agencies had a chance to comment.
“EPA remains interested in the views of all stakeholders, and appreciates Delegate Holmes-Norton’s invitation to attend the Jan. 25th public meeting,” the statement said. “However, the agency believes it is appropriate to first allow the DDOT and FHA time to consider the comments of EPA and others on the draft EIS.”
Though increased vibrations from open trains, air pollution, and accessibility are issues, residents’ main fear about the project stems from the possibility of derailment. Given the recent increase in deadly and fiery train accidents involving cars carrying crude oil and hazardous materials, they say they have good reason to be worried. Residents say a risk of derailment increases when trains run through open-trench tunnels next to construction, though CSX has yet to confirm those concerns.
And with EPA absent and only CSX there to answer questions, the meeting turned into more of a battlefield of arguments between residents and the company than a productive discussion on environmental health effects.
Representatives for CSX insisted there was “no market” for trains carrying crude oil to go through D.C., and that only 3 cars of crude oil had transported through the district in the last year. That statement was refuted by residents, who cited the fact that company CEO Michael Ward recently said CSX would increase crude by rail shipments by 50 percent in 2014.
“I can’t help but be shocked about how many meetings we need to go to where we ask questions and get no answers,” local resident Tomas Bilbao said, noting that CSX is not required to tell communities what exactly is shipped through the tunnel.
Bilbao also said he doubted that CSX had no market for crude oil near the district, citing an agreement CSX has with the Yorktown Terminal in Virginia. That agreement, he said, gives CSX the exclusive rights to transport oil to the terminal, which has permit and capacity for 80,000 tank cars of oil per year.
At one point, Bilbao stood up and accused Stephen Plano, a CSX consultant who works for Parsons Brinckerhoff, of withholding information from the public. Plano responded by leaving his stance at the front of the room, walking up to Bilbao to stare in his face. The awkward moment spurred David Garber, commissioner of D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood, to speak up on Twitter.
“Just for the record: a CSX rep just got in the face of a neighborhood resident as if he was going to fight him,” Garber tweeted. “#professional.”