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An environmental impact report was recently issued, discussing the ramifications for the reconstruction of the Virginia Avenue Tunnel in Washington D.C.

Owned and maintained by CSX, the railroad company aims to reconstruct the tunnel and add a second set of tracks to enable double-stack trains to transport goods. But at 110 years old and approximately 4,000 feet long, the tunnel poses a threat that is stirring local communities. The multitude of disastrous events involving the rail transport of hazardous materials signal red flags in the minds of concerned civilians. The previous year alone involved over six major derailments that have taken place across the continent. In North Dakota, hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the environment. On 6 July 2013, in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, 47 people were killed when 67 tank cars derailed and caused an explosion that obliterated half of the downtown area.

It is a wonder that the report claims to address the tunnel’s environmental impact when it fails to advise CSX to adopt the most up-to-date safety measures to protect local residents. But side-stepping the real issues and glossing over the dangers of rail transport of hazardous materials is nothing new. Departments like the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have been criticized for their slow response to critical safety matters . Many freight train companies use outmoded tank cars to carry resources, and little has been done to discourage these tank cars from travelling through the hearts of residential neighborhoods.

Melissa Lee, a resident of the Virginia Avenue community, is one of many concerned for the safety of the children, according to the Washington Post. Plans for tunnel construction involve open trenches, which, for some proposals, may remain open when the tunnel goes live. A mother of two six-month-old twins, Lee’s children would be 4 or 5 when construction ends. “How can I let my kids live next to this and consider myself a good parent?” she asked.

Certainly, the question is whether this project compromises the safety of the people directly impacted by its construction. CSX states that it would reduce impacts during construction, such as limiting construction hours, minimizing noise and vibration, and providing compensation to neighborhood organizations and most-impacted residents. No mention has been made, however, of what actions it would take should a derailment or tank car collision occur, incidents which pose the greatest threat to locals.


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