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Grover Beach to send letters of concern over oil trains

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The Grover Beach City Council voiced its opposition to the Phillips 66 rail spur project at its regular meeting Sept. 21. 

The council voted unanimously to draft a letter to the federal government addressing concerns over the issue of transporting crude oil by rail, which lies at the heart of the rail extension project. 

The letter will be similar to one sent by the city of Paso Robles in April, which outlined the city’s concerns with crude by rail, and included language and rail safety recommendations created by the League of California Cities. The council also directed staff to prepare a similar letter to the county, which it will vote on at its Oct. 5 meeting.

The council took the vote after a presentation from staff and the 45 individuals who showed up at the meeting spoke for or against the project. 

If approved, the project would allow Philips 66 to extend an existing rail spur by adding 1.3 miles on new track and the company to unload up to five trains per-week carrying crude oil to its Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. The proposed project raised the ire of some residents, many of whom began showing up at city meetings to urge Central Coast city councils to oppose it. Among their concerns are the environmental impacts of additional trains, as well as fears of derailments that could lead to explosions.

At the meeting, Grover Beach City Manager Robert Perrault said that while the construction and operation of the rail spur project would not have a significant impact on the city, a derailment would have a “potentially significant” impact. 

Both the city’s fire and police chiefs have also voiced their concerns about the city’s readiness in the event of a derailment. Police Chief John Peters said the city’s first responders had little training in scenarios involving railroad derailments.

“In order to beef up preparedness, we need additional funding to equip and train officers and dispatchers regarding their duties during such emergencies,” Peters wrote in an email to Perrault. “Currently we do not have a budget for either training or equipment.”

The Grover Beach City Council’s vote occurred just one week after councilmembers in neighboring Pismo Beach voted to send a letter opposing project to county officials. Previously, both cities were reluctant to take a stance on the project, which is still pending a final environmental impact report before it goes to the SLO County planning commission for approval. Laurance Shinderman, a resident who has long been opposed to the project, was pleased to see cities like Grover Beach and Pismo Beach responding to the concerns raised by citizens.

“The issue is public health and safety, not the support of the special interests of one multinational company,” Shinderman said in an email to New Times. “They realized that although there are issues with pre-emption, they had to stand up for the citizens’ rights to clean air and a safe environment for recreation, tourism, and business as well as the community’s well-being.”

But no matter how many letters they send, the decision to approve or deny the rail spur project rests in the hands of the county.

“The city’s role in the process is basically as a commenter,” Perrault told the council at the meeting. “The city really has no role in the discretionary process.” 

As of Sept. 24, the final EIR for the project had not been completed, and it has not been agendized for discussion or a vote at the county level. 

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