How do you explain extreme timidity as a response to extreme peril?
There is a logical response when confronted with a proposal like this: Let’s haul more than 2 million gallons of the most toxic form of crude oil—in tanker cars that have been derailing, spilling, and exploding at an escalating clip—nearly every day of the week through the most densely populated areas and sensitive natural habitat in California.
As is widely known, a 2-million gallon oil spill and a 1/2-mile diameter fireball can ruin your whole day. And even if that doesn’t happen, the significant uptick in diesel pollution and the toxins and carcinogens released in oil refining would permanently degrade our local air quality. Why does Phillips 66 want to do this? Because, according to CEO Greg Garland, it would mean “lowering our feedstock costs. A savings of $1 per barrel across our refining system is worth about $450 million of net income to us.”
The logical response to such a proposal should be a high level of alarm and dismay. Deny the project! Not just no, but hell no! That sort of thing.
But the official responses to the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery rail spur project could be roughly grouped under two headings: “Outside SLO County” and “Inside SLO County.”
Elsewhere in California, more than two dozen cities, counties, and school boards have grasped the threat to their citizens, their students, and their environment, and are opposing the Phillips 66 project.
But inside the county of destination, local governments and school districts, with the exception of the city of San Luis Obispo and the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association, have seemed desperate to avoid the appearance of opposition. On a map of California, the closer one gets to the Santa Maria Refinery, the more local governments come to resemble Dorothy and her friends falling victim to the poppy fields around the Emerald City:
“Now, my beauties: Something with poison in it, I think. Poison … but attractive to the eye and soothing to smell. Poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep.”
—The Wicked Witch of the West
The members of our city councils and school boards presumably are seeing the regular reappearance of the same news story from around North America that everyone else is—another oil train has derailed, exploded in a huge fireball, and burned for days—yet they appear to be in no hurry to agendize a request to the county that their city or schools be spared this roll of the dice.
The Cuesta College superintendent wrote a glowing pro-Phillips 66 letter to the SLO County Planning Commission on college letterhead. The Lucia Mar Unified School District’s superintendent wrote a carefully noncommittal pro-Phillips 66 letter. Phillips 66 dollars have flowed to district programs at both Lucia Mar and Cuesta.
But not all are snoring among the poppies. The city of SLO said no in February, and the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association just did the same, expressing concern over the risk of train derailment and toxic diesel emissions, which could be harmful to the children in their daily charge. The reader should note the contrast between the response of Lucia Mar’s teachers and that of their superintendent.
And as of June 7, the California Teachers Association is opposed. “Educators are very concerned about dangerous oil trains running past California schools,” said CTA President Dean Vogel. “Hundreds of California schools are located near current and future oil train routes. Educators and parents can help stop these Phillips 66 oil trains by encouraging local officials in San Luis Obispo County to put student and community safety first and not issue Phillips 66 a permit for their oil train project.”
Let us give thanks to educators for their ability to clarify issues and hope that they will succeed in educating by example in a county where local officials appear to need many examples before they can grasp the fact that timidity in the face of peril is the wrong response.
The citizens of SLO County, we have found, have no such problem. They get it. Those who want to do something about it can come to Mitchell Park on July 11 and be a part of the national Week of Action to Stop Oil Trains. Go to stopoiltrains.org to RSVP.
Andrew Christie is the director of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Send comments to the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.