As oil giant Phillips 66 barrels forward with a fast-tracked proposal to ship oil by train through San Luis Obispo County, local citizens had their first formal opportunity to scrutinize the plan at a Dec. 12 workshop.
At a cafeteria-cum-auditorium in Arroyo Grande’s Mesa Middle School—with a glittering disco ball and prominent Tom Sawyer banner still puzzlingly hanging above the stage—roughly 60 citizens and stakeholders gathered for a two-hour public workshop regarding the draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for the Phillips 66 project.
As proposed, the rail spur extension project will construct roughly 1.3 miles of new railroad track at the Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo. This addition would enable the refinery to offload an 80-car oil train off the mainline Union Pacific track, previously an impossible task.
If the rail spur is built, the refinery will take in a maximum of five trains (or 260,710 barrels) of crude oil per week. All oil currently comes into the refinery via pipeline, and local California crude oil fields supply the vast majority of the refinery’s intake.
“I want people to wake up,” said Julie Tacker, a Los Osos resident and local activist. “I’d like people all along the railroad line—which runs right through the heart of SLO County—to pay attention. All it takes is one car on the oil train to blow, and then they’ll all blow.”
Local environmental activist Eric Greening was concerned about the safety of the train cars that will be used to transport oil. Greening claimed “the majority of train cars on the rails in America right now are substandard,” and requested that Phillips 66 use safer cars.
Concerns raised about the rail spur project included the significant danger of an oil train accident similar to the Québec disaster of July 2013, adverse traffic and noise impacts, the higher volatility of Bakken crude (a potential source for the oil trains), and the suspicious timing of the project in relation to a 10 percent refinery throughput increase approved just two months before the rail spur project was proposed.
Phillips 66 staffers, SLO County Planning and Building representatives, the DEIR consultants, and even District 4 County Supervisor Caren Ray were in attendance in order to receive public comments and answer questions.
One important piece of information brought to the table by DEIR consultant John Peirson was that the refinery on the Nipomo Mesa is not currently designed to handle large amounts of Bakken crude oil. Peirson said the refinery would hypothetically only be able to process a small amount of Bakken crude unless it was extensively retrofitted, at great cost.
Murry Wilson, the county’s point man on the rail spur project, said the deadline for receiving written comments on the DEIR is Jan. 27. The county has tentatively scheduled a Planning Commission hearing for the project on April 24.