Once again, in his attempt to shill for the Phillips 66 rail terminal project, Mr Fonzi presents his own set of facts (March 30, “You still aren’t safe”). He can have his own opinion, but not his own facts. He opines that the tar sands crude that would be coming down the tracks through San Luis Obispo County poses no danger.
So let’s look at what happened on Feb. 14, 2015, when a Canadian Northern oil train traveling near Gogama, Ontario, derailed and exploded.
The train was laden with bitumen, the extra-heavy tarry substance extracted from Alberta’s oil sands. Undiluted bitumen alone, with a flash point of 166-degrees Celsius or higher, is considered essentially non-flammable in a derailment event and is rarely considered in safety evaluations of crude by rail.
So why did the bitumen ignite and explode in Ontario’s -40-degrees Celsius weather? The reason, based on research consulted by Railway Age, is that the diluent added to make bitumen flow into and out of tank cars makes the blended lading quite volatile.
This blend of bitumen and petroleum-based diluents, known as “dilbit,” has a low flash point. Thus, the widespread belief that bitumen from Alberta’s northern oil sands is far safer to transport by rail than Bakken crude out of the U.S. is, for all intents and purposes, dead wrong. This may be disruptive news for bitumen shippers, carriers, and regulators.
Thus, flash point is the critical factor in determining whether a tank car breach will lead to its contents burning or exploding upon exposure to the pyrotechnics of a high-energy derailment. (Railway Age, “Why bitumen isn’t necessarily safer than Bakken,” Feb. 23, 2015)
Mr. Fonzi continues that we already have danger on the rails … so my answer is simply, “If you already have rattlesnakes in your front yard, why invite them into your living room?” We already have risk, so why invite more.
So now, reading from the same playbook of Phillips 66, Mr. Fonzi adds another “alt” fact about why the project should have been approved: Phillips will now have convoys of oil trucks barreling down the freeways. He’s right in that trucks are dangerous, but Phillips does not have a permit to have fleets of trucks coming into its Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. In fact, the company has been fined by the SLO County Air Pollution Control District for already violating the terms of its current permit that gave them some relief to have trucks carry crude after the Refugio pipeline burst.
Here’s what was written in the environmental impact report that dismisses the trucking alternative:
Given that trucking more oil to the Santa Maria Refinery as an alternative would increase the severity of a number of impacts identified in the already denied rail spur project (e.g., air quality, noise, transportation and circulation, etc.), would not eliminate any of the significant impacts, and could result in additional significant unavoidable impacts to traffic, it has not undergone a more detailed analysis in the environmental impact report and has been dropped from further consideration.
So now Phillips wants to make an end run around the findings of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, which denied the project, having convoys of trucks rumbling down Willow Road in Nipomo, and making a dangerous turn onto Route 1 to bring trucks into the refinery.
Have they no shame? They want what they want. Public health and safety be damned. It seems that Phillips 66 has Mr. Fonzi in its amen choir. Mr. Fonzi had a distinguished career in emergency response, but I doubt he ever had to face the broiling inferno of a crude oil derailment and explosion, where the only response is to let it burn itself out.
Phillips 66 and its supporters’ rationale is that with the pipeline down, they need the crude oil to be shipped by truck even though they are not permitted to do so in the volumes that they would need to bring into the refinery. They are being fined for more than $100,000 for skirting the current permitting guidelines, when they were permitted to bring trucks in after the Refugio oil pipeline burst on the Santa Barbara County coast.
The project’s own environmental impact report said that trucking is not an alternative, but now they are introducing the red herring that trucking is the alternative. It is not.
Phillips: What part of “no” do you not understand?
Lawrence Shinderman is an active member of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which led local resistance to Phillips 66’s proposed rail spur project. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or send a letter to the editor for publication to email@example.com.
Note: The online version of this story has been edited to correct the byline.