Just Say "No!" To CSX's Virginia Tunnel

Take no comfort in CSX's self-described "voluntary" rerouting agreement, or in its alleged intentions to not increase the shipment of Bakken crude and other hazmats – even chlorine! – through D.C.'s monument core. This agreement is so secret that even Congresswoman Norton and the D.C. Council can't see it. It's unenforceable, and CSX can breach – or just terminate – it at any time.  For example, after it receives approvals for the Virginia Avenue Tunnel expansion.

CSX can’t expect us to trust it, especially as CSX and its hazmat customers continue to oppose federal attempts at rail safety regulation.  And especially after CSX fought with every resource at its mighty disposal to defeat city legislation regulating transport of only the very worst of the hazmats, and only within two miles of the Capitol.

That legislation was prompted by 9/11 and a 2001 CSX derailment in the Howard Street Tunnel that shut downtown Baltimore for a week, causing millions of dollars in damage and cancelation of three games at Camden Yards.

The D.C. Council recognized the danger.  They recognized that four metro station exits were less than 250 feet from these tracks, and that 18 metro air vents would admit toxic or explosive gasses to the blue, orange, yellow, and green lines.  They recognized that freight trains are largely unguarded and unregulated.  They recognized that D.C. is the most high-profile terrorist target in the world.

CSX won.  Only the federal government, the D.C. Circuit held, may regulate the railroads. 

In 2007, the National Capital Planning Commission – and District Department of Transportation! – recommended rerouting the trains altogether.  Their study, like the one in 1997, went nowhere. 

These days, we don’t just worry about al Qaeda.  As the Navy Yard is all too painfully aware, even a single crazed individual can inflict mass, deadly harm.  And rail accidents happen.  Often. And, increasingly, with catastrophic consequences.

Last summer, a derailment in Lac Megantic caused an inferno that claimed 47 lives and caused more than $400 million in damage.  Imagine what would happen in highly-populated D.C.  CSX admits that it can ship unlimited Bakken crude through the city. 

While CSX was touting its safety record before the D.C. Council on April 30, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude derailed and exploded in Lynchburg, VA.  Three-hundred people were evacuated.  CSX had at least two other derailments – in Greenville, NC (chemicals for fertilizers) and Bowie, MD (coal) – within 24 hours of its D.C. Council testimony.

U.S. and Canadian mayors, and the National Transportation Safety Board, are begging Congress and regulators for improvements in rail safety.  Even Transportation Secretary Foxx admits that his agency can’t keep up.

We may not be able to make CSX reroute the hazmats or the trains.  But we don’t have to make the problem exponentially and permanently worse.  CSX needs environmental approval, new right of way, and construction permits.

The city can – and should – just say no.

At the least, the city should condition any approvals on CSX making a legally binding, perpetual, public agreement to reroute the worst of the hazmats away from the monument core.  That’s not regulation.  It’s contract.  And it’s the only way to protect our city from a powerful industry that values profits over lives and other “externalities.”

In the meanwhile, if the tunnel really is in danger of imminent collapse – contrary to statements in the DEIS that the structure is “in relatively good shape,” but problems could emerge “over the next few decades” – shipment of all hazmats through this route should cease immediately.  If CSX has allowed its resources to fall into such dangerous disrepair, we should seek to curtail its activities, not expand them.

Maureen Cohen Harrington is a Capitol Quarter resident and member of DC Safe Rail. She can be contacted at cohenharrington@gmail.com.

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