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Alexandria Residents Question Ethanol Spill Response

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Norfolk Southern owns the rail yard where liquid ethanol is pumped from trains to tankers.
Alexandria Fire Dept.
Norfolk Southern owns the rail yard where liquid ethanol is pumped from trains to tankers.

City leaders in Alexandria are calling on Norfolk Southern Railroad to keep better communication with the Fire Department after the railroad waited more than an hour to inform the fire chief that an accident had taken place at a hazardous materials facility.

Many residents in the West End of Alexandria are outraged about a spill of liquid ethanol, a class 3 hazardous substance, that happened Tuesday afternoon. Nobody was hurt, and the incident was contained quickly, but Cameron Station Civic Association president Dak Hardwick said he's disappointed that the railroad didn't notify the city until more than an hour after the incident.

"The railroad bought the city all of this firefighting equipment related to ethanol spills, and all of that is on site at the facility," said Hardwick. "And the people that have the keys to that stuff is the city, not the railroad."

Norfolk Southern spokesman Robin Chapam said the railroad followed the protocol set out in the spill-response plan, notifying federal and state officials. The city was notified later.

"We notified the fire department as a matter of courtesy," said Chapam.

Alexandria Fire Department Chief Adam Thiel said he's not sure what a courtesy call means.

"We don't get a lot of courtesy calls," said Thiel. "We get a lot of 911 calls, which are, by definition, urgent"

Several years ago, the city of Alexandria found itself in court when it wanted to regulate the hours of operation at the site and the hours its trucks could be on the road. Alexandria lost that case, appealed the decision and lost in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Now the railroad says waiting an hour to notify the city is part of the plan.

"All I can tell you is that we have a plan that's appropriate to each situation, and we followed that plan," said Chapam. "We notified those that really needed to know at the time depending on the nature of the emergency."

Now city leaders say they'll be pressing for a new plan one that requires the railroad to notify them of any problem that happens at the facility.

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