The Inside Story Of The Plan To Send Hazardous Materials Straight Through The Heart Of D.C.


It was two nights before Thanksgiving in Willard, Ohio, when a CSX Corp. freight train carrying hazardous materials derailed and spilled 12,500 gallons of flammable liquid onto the soil.

The chemical was “styrene monomer,” an oily carcinogen which is used to make plastics, paints, and synthetic rubbers. In the short-term, human exposure can cause dizziness, headaches, and rashes. Long-term exposure can cause lung cancer and affect brain and liver function. Following the spill, about 400 people who live near the train tracks were evacuated — some not to return until Friday.

“It’s just part of living here,” a woman getting her nails done in a Willard beauty salon told the local WKYC news station on Thursday afternoon. “We might blow up, but we’ll look good!”

Derailments are not a rare occurrence in Willard, where a rail yard owned by CSX has been standing for decades. Just one month ago, four cars of a 156-car CSX freight train derailed while the train entered the yard, but there were no spills or injuries. It’s just an inevitable part of the town’s “key business,” as Willard’s Chamber of Commerce notes. Residents, to a certain degree, expect accidents. Willard is railroad country. Washington, D.C. is a different story. In the nation’s capital, commuter rails run underground and freight trains rarely stop so the risk of a serious hazmat incident due to a derailment is relatively low.


But that risk would significantly increase under a proposal by CSX which is currently being considered by the U.S. and D.C. Departments of Transportation. If approved, the company would dig a massive trench, and uncovered freight trains would carry crude oil and other hazardous materials in the open, less than 50 feet from the homes of families, children, and seniors and less than one mile from the U.S. Capitol building. A residential tree-lined block would be bowled over, dug out, fenced in, and would stay that way for at least five years.

The proposed open trench is part of a larger effort by CSX to reconstruct the Virginia Avenue Tunnel (VAT), an underground freight rail that extends from 2nd to 11th street in the historic Capitol Hill and Navy Yard neighborhoods of southeast D.C. In its current state, the more than 100-year old tunnel has a dirt floor and a single track. CSX’s proposal would add a second track for two-way traffic, a concrete floor, and added height capacity for double-stacked trains. For the approximate six years it would take to rebuild, the company has proposed three different methods to run freight traffic in the meantime. All three options include digging out a temporary trench next to the tunnel reconstruction where the large diesel-fueled trains would run through the city.

CSX touts their freight as largely containing “orange juice and soybeans.” But the reality is that the company regularly transports hazardous materials, including chlorine, cyclohexane, methyl ethyl ketone, and butadiene. The company says it has has a “voluntary agreement” with the District not to bring the most hazardous explosive materials through the D.C. metro area, but regular hazmats, diesel fuel, and crude oil are still on the table. Federal right-to-know laws exempt CSX and other shipping companies from having to disclose to the public what exactly those hazmats are. So they don’t. They never have.

Every time I hear about a train derailment, my stomach ties in knots

“CSX provides first responders and public officials with a Hazardous Materials Density Study upon request, which provides specific information about volume of hazardous materials moved through a particular community,” said Melanie Cost, a CSX spokesperson, declining to say whether “syrene monomer” would be transported through the VAT. “For security reasons, we cannot comment publicly on the types of commodities shipped through a specific area.”


But the secrecy surrounding what exactly will be zooming through their neighborhood on a daily basis — — led by a company that, according to the Federal Railway Administration, had more than 200 derailments and accidents in 2012 — — has left many in the area emotional, worried, and fighting for a chance to be heard.

“Every time I hear about a train derailment, my stomach ties in knots,” said Jennifer McPhillips, 31, whose front door would border the open trench. She and her husband James have been key voices in the growing battle against CSX’s proposal.

Before learning of it, the two were ready to start a family.

“But now this is all I think about,” Jennifer said, “Until it’s over, I can’t wrap my head around moving ahead with my life.”

Not In My Backyard

If all of this sounds a bit dramatic, that’s because it is — at least for the people who would live near the trench. Running trains through an uncovered hole in the ground is not the only thing that scares them. Rather, it is the fact that trains would run adjacent to an active construction site and a highway. Debris from any of these things could derail a train. Add 12,500 gallons of styrene monomer to the mix, and the situation becomes even worse.


Many who live in recently-revitalized Navy Yard neighborhood say they were just getting used to their newly beautified area, which until as recently as ten years ago was largely considered an industrial wasteland.

“I have spent a good deal of my service in the Congress to develop this community,” said Rep. Eleanor Holmes-Norton, the District’s non-voting representative in Congress, “and I’m not going to stand by and see it torn up now that it’s been built up.”

They can’t hand out hot dog money and think that that’s going to be okay. We’re smarter than that.

Holmes-Norton made her comments at a community meeting at The Arthur Capper Senior Apartments, a low-income public housing unit that would be about 30 feet from the proposed trench. Though the VAT expansion proposal has been around for years, only a handful of the seniors at Arthur Capper say they had heard of it. This is of no fault of CSX, according to the company’s Director of Federal Affairs Stephen Flippin, who noted that more than 50 public meetings have been held and a community office has been set up in the neighborhood to field local residents’ questions.

“CSX has been active in the community throughout the region,” Flippin said at the November 23 community meeting. “Our goal with all of this is to demonstrate that we’re neighbors and part of this community as well.”

Part of the effort to demonstrate neighborly behavior, according to some residents, has been to hand out various accommodations throughout in neighborhood the last few months. Resident James McPhillips said he’s seen CSX employees handing out water bottles, and that the company has replaced the roof of a local church. His wife Jennifer said that CSX will occasionally host an outdoor movie in the summer, and has put up a new swing set in Garfield Park — a park which would be next to the trench.

“They’ll plant a tree here are there. But we’re not dumb,” Jennifer said. “They can’t hand out hot dog money and think that that’s going to be okay. We’re smarter than that.”

Just how “not dumb” the residents are could not be seen more clearly than at the community meeting, where nearly 100 people crammed into the Arthur Capper center’s conference room to confront CSX, DOT and D.C. DOT representatives. To say the mood was tense would be an understatement. After a preparatory meeting two days earlier, the seniors and neighbors came with cardboard signs the size of their torsos. “EPA Says CSX Ignores Kids And Elderly,” one said. “Keep Us Safe” another read.

Resident Maureen Cohen Harrington, whose home would border the trench, clutched a copy of the 1600-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) — — a document that is supposed to lay out the risks and impacts of the project and how to mitigate them — — in her arms. It was the only copy in the room. CSX has a copy of the DEIS in its community office, but those who would like to read it must do so within the office, which is only open a few days a week. The document is also online, but being 1600 pages, it takes a considerable amount of time to download. Maureen, who is also an assistant general counsel at the Library of Congress, was able to get her own copy — — not from CSX, but from Federal Highway Administration. Her book is now littered with colorful Post-Its marking critical passages.

Maureen, like many at the meeting, said she is concerned about a number of things. Increased air pollution from a five-year construction site next to her home. The fact that construction will periodically interrupt her gas, electric, and cable services. That increased vibrations from open-trench trains may crack the foundations of buildings, including the senior center. And after months of pouring over the DEIS, she is convinced that the VAT reconstruction is merely an excuse for CSX to attempt a crucial land-grab in the nation’s capital.

In order to come to that assumption, Maureen explained that CSX owns the Virginia Avenue Tunnel pursuant to a 1901 federal statute that created it. The statute only gave the railroad a 5-year deadline to build the tunnel and tracks. But that is not mentioned in the DEIS — nor is the fact that a 1885 Supreme Court case requires permission from Congress to move the tracks, which under CSX’s proposal, would be shifted by 25 feet or more.

At the community meeting, Maureen asked CSX whether it had been lobbying Congress for authority to expand its right-of-way in order to reconstruct and move the tunnel. Steve Flippin, the CSX Director of Federal Affairs, denied that the company was lobbying.

Maureen then pulled out copies of two CSX lobbying disclosure reports filed in 2013, specifically citing “issues related to the Virginia Avenue Tunnel Project,” and more than $1.6 million spent.

The crowd erupted in shouts and murmurs, while Flippin shook his head and moved on to the next question.

Hush-Hush Hazmats

Something else that is not mentioned in the 1600-page DEIS is the word “accident,” which seems like a curious omission given the recent history of freight derailments.

There was just smoke. The whole park was engulfed in smoke.

Out of CSX’s 212 accidents reported in 2013, 99 were derailments. Sixty-four of the accidents included cars carrying hazardous materials, though only four involved the release of hazmats. But out of all railroad companies in America, CSX had the most incidents involving the release of hazardous materials, with most companies only chalking up two incidents this year. In one of CSX’s four cases, the train that derailed was only going two miles per hour, though that appears to have happened while the train was pulling into a rail yard –- something the District does not have.

In fact, one of the most recent accidents occurred in the Virginia Avenue Tunnel just two weeks ago, when a railcar carrying wooden railroad ties covered in a chemical called creosote caught fire. Creosote is a wood preserver and treatment that, if burned, can release toxic chemicals, according to the EPA.

It is unclear when the fire began, but as the Washington Post indicates, it was sometime before the car was stopped at 4th Street and Virginia Avenue, SW. There were no injuries and a cause has not yet been identified.

“There was just smoke,” Helena Smolich, a resident who was in Garfield Park at the time of the fire, told the Post. “The whole park was engulfed in smoke.”

The risk of a hazmat incident was of great concern at the community meeting, in which residents repeatedly asked representatives from CSX, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the D.C. Department of Transportation what types of remediation efforts would be put in place, and what the claims process would be like if anything were to be damaged from a spill.

Michael Hicks, an environmental engineer at the Federal Highway Administration, answered by telling the crowd not to be “presumptive.”

“Don’t get yourselves all in a tizzy thinking there’s going to be a tragedy that’s going to take place out there,” Hicks said. “I understand the reaction is emotional, but don’t assume the worst-case scenario.”

But the residents say they have every right to get in a “tizzy.” In May, a CSX cargo train carrying non-toxic inhalants derailed in Baltimore, causing an explosion and a cloud of black smoke that could be seen for miles. In 2012, a CSX freight train derailed in Shepherdsville, KY and released full loads of cyclohexane, methyl ethyl ketone, and butadiene, resulting in a large fire, 52 injuries, and $22.4 million in damage. And no one can forget the non-CSX-related tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a freight train carrying crude oil ran away and derailed, killing at least forty-two people.

Michael Austin, who works in the public safety and health department at CSX, said at the meeting that there was a good deal of “misconception” surround the transport of hazmats and crude oil through the District.

“Nobody at CSX at any point in time, that I am aware of, sits and laughs and says that the only thing we move is orange juice and soy,” he said. “I’m sorry for that misconception.”

Currently, Austin said, CSX has a “voluntary agreement” with the city that states that CSX will not transport through D.C. the most hazardous materials. These include compressed flammable gases, radioactive material, or spent nuclear fuel shipments. 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, Austin said.

The railroads are supposed to be choosing the most safe and secure routes, but who is making them? There’s just no federal oversight worth a damn.

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. When asked how much crude oil could be carried on a mixed freight train, Austin responded: “unlimited.” When asked what kind of hazmats classify as non-high risk, Austin would not respond. CSX is required to provide a list of the top most 25 hazardous materials transported to emergency response teams throughout the city, but those emergency responders are not allowed to disclose them, for “security reasons.”

Additionally, the voluntary agreement to keep high-level hazmats out of the city is just that: voluntary. The company can renege on that agreement at any time, with no threat of punishment. Austin confirmed this, but added that “we will not, at this point in time, change our mind” on the agreement.

Dr. Fred Millar, a hazmat consultant who has spent 30 years lobbying for chemical accident prevention around the country, told ThinkProgress that despite his best efforts to the contrary, CSX has successfully been able to avoid disclosing or re-routing hazardous chemicals around the city through litigation. The voluntary agreement to keep the most dangerous chemicals out, he said, is just a way to quell a city that once fought hard against them.

“The railroads are supposed to be choosing the most safe and secure routes, but who is making them?” he said. “There’s just no federal oversight worth a damn.”

Hazmat History

D.C.’s attempt to ban hazmats in the city can be traced back to 2001, when a 60-car CSX freight train derailed in Baltimore, Maryland. One of the derailed tank cars spilled tripropylen, a highly flammable chemical, while another released 2,554 gallons of hydrochloric acid. A chemical fire ignited and burned for five days, disturbing east coast rail service and causing a water main break.

After that accident, “the nation’s attention was diverted,” according to a 2011 article in the Baltimore Sun. “Not long after the fire, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, focused the nation on airline safety and the threat of terrorism. It took a while before attention returned to the safety of the rails — emphasized once again by the deadly derailment and chlorine gas leak that killed nine in Graniteville, S.C., in January 2005.”

After the South Carolina incident, the risk of hazardous material freight trains in urban areas — made greater by the threat of a terrorist attack — -was revitalized. In February of that year, the D.C. government enacted the Terrorism Prevention in Hazardous Materials Transportation Emergency Act of 2005, which banned freight shipments of hazardous materials within 2.2 miles of the U.S. Capitol Building. The law was the first of its kind in the country.

Enter CSX. The company immediately sued in an attempt to block the law. A series of back-and-forth victories and losses ensued until May 2005, when the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling that had found “the city’s obligation to protect people from a railroad catastrophe outweighed any harm that CSX would suffer while the lawsuit was pending.” The appeals court ruled that only the federal government can regulate the rails.

But even in bipartisan attempts, Congress was unable to regulate rail freight security. One former congressman, Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH), even introduced federal legislation to block the D.C. ordinance banning hazmats. LaTourette’s wife, Jennifer, is currently a CSX lobbyist.

CSX entered into the classified agreement to keep certain materials out of the city sometime in the years after that, though it is not clear exactly when.

Air Pollution

Hazmats, crude oil, and the risks of a spill or explosion are not the only environmental concerns surrounding the controversial proposal. Increased particulate matter in the air from a prolonged construction period is also rearing its head as an issue.

The DEIS suggests that during construction, residents who live around the construction “may be discouraged from opening their windows if construction activities that may product dust emissions are occurring near the building.”

But at the Arthur Capper senior center, which would be 30 feet from the proposed open trench, pink and black soot already settles on the residents’ windows every few days “I mean, we all get dust. But this is just over the top,” said Louise Francis-El, an Arthur Capper resident. “I’ve never lived in anything like it before.”

Relocating the CSX tracks more than 1,000 feet to the east would mean lower levels of diesel emission and less harmful effects to the residents.

In a building where allergies and asthma are rampant, emphysema and COPD more and more common, Arthur Capper residents are already worried about the effects of air pollution on their health. Resident Betty House isn’t even sure the building’s ventilation system is keeping the dust outside. “Every time they cut the grass, I can smell it in my apartment,” she said, “even when all my doors and windows are closed.”

According to a report produced by the Committee of 100 of the Federal City, a non-profit group that promotes responsible land use and planning in Washington, diesel train operations running in the open will also have a “negative and measurable effect” on air quality. Part of CSX’s plan to rebuild the tunnel is to eventually run more freight through the city, the Committee said, which would inevitably lead to an increase in emissions and degradation of air quality — — especially because the trench would be next to a major highway.

“Rerouting CSX trains away from [the city] … would result in dilution of the airborne emissions proportionate to the distance of the relocation,” the report said. “Relocating the CSX tracks more than 1,000 feet to the east would mean lower levels of diesel emission and less harmful effects to the residents.”

According to the DEIS, the tunnel also contains 8,000 square feet of asbestos, which will be unearthed once construction begins.

The EPA has also commented on the air quality effects of the VAT proposal, saying that in its current state, it fails to consider a method for monitoring particulate matter in the air during construction. CSX’s proposal in its current state also failed to take children’s environmental health into account, the EPA said.

One Track Mind

All of this has residents wondering why CSX did not consider an option of just re-routing the temporary trains around their neighborhood, in a non-urban area.

“There’s no excuse for why temporary rerouting wasn’t included as an alternative,” Maureen said. “The agencies haven’t given us straight answers. They’ve barely even pretended to.”

CSX has suggested that putting freight on trucks — a proven environmental nightmare — is the only alternative. The Committee of 100 calls this “disingenuous.” Simply rerouting freight out of the city, while expensive, would not only take air pollution and hazmat risks away from the public, but it could be used to accommodate the expansion of passenger and commuter rail capacity, the report said.

“From an environmental perspective, getting freight out of trucks and onto trains in a way that keeps commuters in cars and off of trains could be a Pyrrhic victory, even if it enhances CSX’s bottom line,” the report said.

Until CSX can come up with a better alternative for re-routing trains during construction, the residents are gunning for approval of the DEIS’s option number one: No build.

“For now, our logic is that you inform the public and the media, and they put pressure on the industry to do things safer,” Millar said. “At the very least, making it difficult for them to ship crude oil like peanut butter is something we all ought to do.”