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Paso Robles to draft a letter highlighting concerns over crude oil transport by rail

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The city of Paso Robles will be sending a letter to several agencies and decision makers detailing concerns about the shipment of crude oil by rail.

The letter won’t address, however, a major project chugging toward San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioners and then likely the Board of Supervisors: the proposed rail spur extension project at the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery.

The Paso Robles City Council’s April 7 decision to draft the letter was made both in light of the proposed rail spur project and as part of a broader push by the California League of Cities to address implications from increased transport of crude oil by rail. Recent accidents involving oil trains have caused widespread public concern and sparked federal legislation currently being drafted to enhance safety standards for its shipment.

The Council expressed concerns over how increased rail transport would impact traffic in the city, as well as tourism, passenger trains, and public safety. The council’s letter will also include a request for Union Pacific Railroad (UPR)—which owns and operates the rails—to work with the city to increase emergency response training and preparedness, as well as for more cooperation in allowing local agencies to access a train’s manifest detailing what each tanker car is carrying, information that’s both proprietary and often kept secret for security purposes.

The council will send the letter to the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Office of Management and Budget, which oversee the rails and the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery, respectively. At Mayor Steve Martin’s request, the council also will send the letter to the SLO County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham, state representatives, UPR, and a group of U.S. Senators—including Sen. Dianne Feinstein—who authored pending legislation to enhance safety standards for crude shipment by rail.

The council heard from several members of the public, including Nipomo residents who live near the refinery, Paso Robles residents, and officials with Phillips 66 and UPR. Several impassioned comments highlighted the dangers posed by the shipment of crude oil by rail, asking the council to also adopt a position opposing the rail spur expansion project and asking the county to do the same. The council stopped short of such a decision, leaving San Luis Obispo the only city so far to ask the county to deny the project.

While the railroads are federally regulated, the Phillips 66 rail spur expansion project will require a conditional use permit from SLO County. The county is currently preparing the final Environmental Impact Report, and the planning commission is expected to hear the project sometime this summer.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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