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Norfolk Southern abandons plans for Atlanta site with ‘painful legacy’

NS will seek other locations for rail transfer facility

A Norfolk Southern train heads to its next destination. (Photo: Norfolk Southern)

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) has nixed plans to build a rail transfer facility at a historical site in Atlanta.

Norfolk Southern (NS) said Thursday that it will cease constructing the facility on the site of the former Chattahoochee Brick Co. City of Atlanta officials filed a petition for a preliminary injunction with the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to stop the project until the city can discuss its concerns with the board.

“We accepted from the beginning that we had a special responsibility to develop this site in a socially and environmentally responsible way, given the atrocities that once took place there,” NS President and CEO Jim Squires said in a release. “We believe our project presented an opportunity to create a long-overdue memorial to the painful legacy of the site and at the same time reshape its future by building new river trails and putting the long-abandoned land back into productive use in a way that benefits the regional economy.”

According to Atlanta’s Feb. 12 petition to STB, the site bears historical value because the Chattahoochee Brick Co. used Black convict laborers to work at the facility. The laborers produced millions of bricks, many of which were used to rebuild Atlanta after the Civil War, according to the city’s petition. 

Historians say laborers at the manufacturing plant endured horrific treatment and they speculate that some workers who died from the injuries sustained while working were buried there, according to the petition.

Atlanta says NS might not have been aware of the breadth of the historical significance of the site, but “the unique nature of the history of Chattahoochee Brick places many of the applicable regulations outside of the scope of ICCTA [Interstate Commerce Commission Termination Act] and squarely within the police powers of the City, which has responsibility to protect the public health and safety of its citizens. Chattahoochee Brick is not a run-of-the mill industrial or railroad site.”

The city also said the property was located on a federally regulated floodplain.

After Atlanta filed the preliminary injunction, NS decided to abandon the project, saying that although it believed the city’s action lacks legal merit, NS “listened to the community” and it has no interest in protracted litigation if Atlanta opposes the project. 

NS also said it worked with local elected leaders and community stakeholders on the site throughout 2020, and it offered to design and build a memorial at company expense, as well as create public-access trails on the site along the Chattahoochee River and Proctor Creek. The railroad also said it was working with the Georgia Environmental Protection Division and the Georgia Brownfields Program to perform environmental remediation. 

“We pride ourselves on being a good corporate citizen in the communities where we operate,” Squires said. “In this case, that means walking away from the project despite our very best efforts to work with the community on the responsible development of the site.”

NS said it will stabilize the site and withdraw from it, and it will seek another site elsewhere.

“With its location and access, this site provided a unique opportunity for us. We will continue to look for opportunities to participate in ethanol distribution in this area,” NS spokesman Jeff DeGraff said. “For now, we are focused on securing and stabilizing this site so we can responsibly step away.”

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Joanna Marsh

Joanna is a Washington, DC-based writer covering the freight railroad industry. She has worked for Argus Media as a contributing reporter for Argus Rail Business and as a market reporter for Argus Coal Daily.