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Phillips 66 responds to county report on rail project

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Just days before a controversial rail extension project is set to come before the SLO County Planning Commission, oil giant Phillips 66 responded to a county staff report that recommends the project be denied.

On Feb. 1, a law firm representing the company sent a 39-page response to the county planning staff’s lengthy report on the rail spur project, which, if approved, would allow Phillips 66 to transport crude oil by rail though Central Coast communities to its Santa Maria Refinery.

The project drew widespread criticism from residents and local governmental bodies in SLO County and across California. The staff report recommends the commission deny the project based on a number of factors, including concerns over the environmental impacts of the project and increased train activity, as well as the potential for the trains to derail, causing leaks, fires, or even explosions.

The letter from Phillips began by thanking the county planning staff for their efforts, but noted that the company disagrees with the report’s conclusions, which Phillips claims clash with the project’s final environmental impact report.

“Despite this effort, however, there are several points on which the FEIR and staff report do not state a clear conclusion, or suggest conclusions contrary to law,” the letter stated.

The letter took aim at the often-heard argument that concerns of derailments, fires, and oil train explosions be considered as a reason to deny the project. Phillips 66 and its attorneys argued that oil train safety was the purview of the federal government and not the commission.

“As important as these questions are, they are not before the Planning Commission in this project,” the letter stated. “The United States Constitution and federal law places those questions in the hands of the federal government. And the federal government has established comprehensive programs that regulate the railroads in a way that is consistent across the country.”

With the clock ticking down to a much-anticipated commission hearing on the project scheduled for Feb. 4 and Feb. 5, the letter also noted that Phillips 66 was open to reducing the number of oil-by-rail deliveries, which it believes would lessen the significant impact noted in the staff report.

The Mesa Refinery Watch Group, a local organization opposed to the project, characterized the letter as a calculated move by the company.

“The threats remain exactly the same,” read a statement from the group to New Times. “But Phillips is playing a legal game, attempting to shove opposition out of the way.”

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