Mindful of concerns in the District of Columbia about reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel (VAT) for CSX trains, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) received a briefing on the status of hazardous materials (hazmat) that travel through the District on CSX trains. The D.C. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are jointly preparing an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the reconstruction of the VAT. Norton is a senior member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Ranking Member of its Highways and Transit Subcommittee.
"I will continue to monitor the reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel and to provide updated information to the public," said Norton. "We must be assured that the reconstructed tunnel is a safe and effective way to transport materials that are classified as hazardous (e.g., orange juice, soy beans, etc.), but are vital, through our city during and after the construction, and that all possible steps have been taken to reduce any environmental effects on the surrounding neighborhoods."
According to the briefing, an agreement between CSX and the D.C. government provides that "high hazmats" are not to be transported through the District. High hazmats include ammonia, chlorine, and explosive materials. Other hazardous materials and oil are permitted. CSX does not publicly share a list of these exact materials, but included in this classification are everyday items including orange juice and soybeans. Norton will seek a classified briefing to receive reassurance that no high hazmats travel through the city.
Norton was assured that there are emergency measures in place in the event of a hazmat incident, but they are not shared publicly. CSX works directly with D.C. emergency responders to keep them abreast of what materials are being transported through the city. For example, under the "Now System," CSX informs emergency responders which materials are on which rail cars so that emergency responders can respond appropriately. CSX also sends D.C. emergency responders to trainings in other parts of the country so they can appropriately prepare for and respond to any incidents.
Norton said that the lack of information on whether or not the ditch on Virginia Avenue, during construction, will be covered, safe and non-abrasive to the community is troubling, and that she will continue to seek further information. The Virginia Avenue Tunnel Project is currently undergoing the EIS process, and the plan for the current ditch on Virginia Avenue is dependent on which of four alternatives is chosen by CSX. If a decision not to build is selected, the Congresswoman says she needs to know what will ultimately happen with the ditch. If any of the three other alternatives are selected, which include rebuilding and expanding the existing tunnel or building a new tunnel in the current ditch, the ditch will serve as a new tunnel or it will be filled. Depending on which alternative is selected, construction would take 30-42 months or 54-66 months.
Norton has long been concerned about the transportation of hazardous materials through urban areas like the District and pressed for comprehensive rail security when she was the lead sponsor of the Secure TRAINS Act. In 2007, she cosponsored a bill, which was passed by the Subcommittee on Transportation Security and Infrastructure Protection, to ensure that hazardous substance trains that pass through the city and region are regulated. However, CSX provided assurances that high hazmats would not be transported directly through the city.