News | March 19, 2021

Community action stops Atlanta rail terminal

Norfolk Southern recently announced it has abandoned plans to build a rail transfer terminal at the old Chattahoochee Brick site in northwest Atlanta after years of community opposition and a decision by the city to file legal action challenging the development.

The rail transfer station, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River and Proctor Creek, would have been used to move fuel, ethanol, and other materials from trains into trucks and storage tanks. The project was originally proposed by Lincoln Terminal in 2016 but faced community opposition and was unable to obtain the necessary land use permits from the city.

Activists opposed to the project were dismayed to learn in 2020 that Lincoln had partnered with Norfolk Southern to resurrect the project. Norfolk Southern claimed that federal laws regulating railroads prevented local governments, like the City of Atlanta, from applying local laws to railroad facilities.

A number of prominent civil rights leaders, neighborhood activists, and community organizations opposed the project, both because of environmental and public health concerns, and because of the history of the Chattahoochee Brick facility. After the Civil War, brick manufacturers used inmates from Georgia prisons to work in the plant, with little regard for their health or safety. Conditions were so horrific that many workers died on the site, most of whom were Black.

SELC assisted one of the groups opposing the project, Groundworks Atlanta, by obtaining documents related to the project and evaluating the legal options available to the city to enforce its zoning and local public health law despite the federal preemption laws. Applying our legal expertise to this arcane area of transportation law, in late 2020 we encouraged the City of Atlanta to take a more nuanced view to the situation and laid out the legal basis for the city to ensure the protections of its local laws by challenging Norfolk Southern’s preemption claims.

In February 2021, the city filed a petition with the federal Surface Transportation Board challenging Norfolk Southern’s preemption claim, relying on the same arguments set forth in SELC’s letter to the city. Faced with the city’s legal challenge and mounting community opposition, Norfolk Southern announced that it was withdrawing from the project.

“Norfolk Southern’s decision to pull the plug on this project is not only the right decision, but is a testament to years of community organizing and public outreach by Groundworks Atlanta, neighborhood activists, and civil rights leaders,” said Senior Attorney Brian Gist. “We also commend the City of Atlanta’s leadership for taking the necessary legal action, and ensuring that all Atlantans benefit from the health and environmental protections in its local laws.”