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Court Case Pits Alexandria Against Railroad Company

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By Michael Pope

Today about 70 trucks carrying a class three hazardous substance known as liquid ethanol will leave the Van Dorn Yard behind Tucker Elementary School and head toward the Capital Beltway.

That’s more than three times the number of trucks allowed by a permit issued by the Alexandria Transportation Department back in 2008. Yet the city’s authority to issue that permit was rejected last year by a federal judge.

Now attorneys for the city have come to Richmond in an effort to persuade a three-judge appeals panel that decision was wrong.

"Just because there is a connection to the facility does not mean that everything touching it is preempted," says Alexandria's attorney Eric Pilsk. "Otherwise, every activity by a customer leaving a railroad yard would be immune from local regulation under the cloak of railroad transportation."

Not surprisingly, Norfolk Southern disagreed. In oral arguments lawyers for the railroad giant argued this case is exactly why federal laws trump local ordinances.

"The last thing we want is to give the authority to make rules for handling hazardous materials to 50 different states and hundreds - if not thousands - of localities," says Norfolk Southern attorney Gary Bryant. "Otherwise, can you imagine, we would have to have several rail cars just to carry the manuals with all the rules."

The decision could have far-reaching implications for other jurisdictions trying to limit the amount of hazardous materials moving from rail cars to streets across the county.

A decision is expected within the next six months.

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