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Refinement needed: After encountering intense opposition to an oil-by-rail project in Nipomo, authorities say they have to reassess

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Once fast tracked for a speedy review process, the proposed Phillips 66 rail spur extension project at the Santa Maria Refinery in Nipomo has now shifted tracks, and the proverbial conductor has hit the brakes.

After substantial outcry and a flood of public comments about the project, San Luis Obispo County officials told New Times that they’ve officially decided to recirculate the project’s draft environmental impact report (DEIR).

This decision is expected to push review of the project back at least eight months.

Murry Wilson, an environmental resource specialist and the county Department of Planning and Building’s point man on the rail spur project, told New Times that his department was overwhelmed by the roughly 800 public comments they received regarding the project’s DEIR.

“Many of the comments were really substantive, and the nature of the project has changed enough as a result of those comments that the DEIR could no longer provide an appropriate review for the project,” Wilson said. “Making sure the public has access and a chance to respond to new information is the key thing here.”

Specifically, Wilson said the substantive public comments triggered Section 15088.5 of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) guidelines.

This section stipulates that “a lead agency recirculate an EIR when significant new information is added to the EIR after public notice for public review of the [DEIR], but prior to certification.”

The county, as the lead agency, made the call to recirculate the DEIR in mid-March, and Phillips 66, after assessing the situation, officially decided to fund the recirculation on March 24.

In the case of the rail spur project, Wilson said in order to respond to comments and concerns about train emissions and hazards associated with a train crash on the mainline railroad tracks outside of SLO County, the scope of the DEIR’s analysis will need to be expanded significantly, thus necessitating its recirculation.

Among the roughly 800 comments received both in favor and opposed to the rail spur project, hundreds came from individual citizens and a handful came from government agencies like Cal Fire, the city of SLO, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the SLO Council of Governments.

More comments came from organizations and schools, including Cuesta College, Lucia Mar Unified School District, two branches of the Sierra Club, and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council.

All of the public comments are available to view in PDF form on the Department of Planning and Building’s website.

Wilson said the process of redrafting the DEIR to incorporate responses to public comments would take roughly two months. At that point, the revised report would be made available to the public for comment once again.

“The entire process—from when we say ‘go’ in a few weeks to when the final EIR should be ready for a public hearing—will take about eight months,” Wilson said. “A Planning Commission hearing date in December of this year to consider the project is a reasonable target.”

The rail spur project had been tentatively slated for a Planning Commission hearing on April 24, but that is now officially scrapped.

As proposed, the rail spur extension project would add roughly 1.3 miles of new railroad track at the Nipomo refinery. This addition would enable Phillips 66 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.

Previously raised concerns about the rail spur project include the significant danger of an oil train accident similar to the Québec disaster of July 2013, which killed 47 people and leveled more than 40 buildings.

In addition, opponents have cited adverse traffic and noise impacts, the higher volatility of Bakken crude oil (a potential source for the oil trains), and the suspicious timing of the rail spur project in relation to a 10 percent refinery throughput increase approved just two months before the spur project was first proposed.

District 4 County Supervisor Caren Ray, whose district includes the refinery, said she fully supported the decision to recirculate the DEIR.

“It’s clear that the DEIR did not address many of the significant impacts that were brought up by the public comments, both inside and outside of SLO County,” Ray told New Times. “The implications of this project are substantial, and I’m pleased that we’re not rushing to a decision.”

Laurance Shinderman, a Nipomo resident and member of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group—a local rail spur project watchdog—said the county clearly underestimated the amount of opposition to the refinery project.

“The rail spur extension is a cockamamie idea,” Shinderman said. “It’s phenomenal to see that it’s been pushed back, because it gives our opposition group more time to coalesce.”

A representative from Phillips 66 didn’t have an official comment as of press time.

 

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

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