As the County Board of Supervisors began its two-day hearing March 13 to decide one of the county’s most controversial proposed projects, dozens of protestors gathered across from their downtown SLO meeting chambers to let them then know just how they felt about the issue.
“I don’t want any oil trains,” said Templeton resident Joey Martinez. Martinez was one of the many individuals who gathered outside the SLO County Courthouse for a rally against the proposed Phillips 66 rail spur project. “I don’t think we need them anywhere,” she said. “Especially not here.”
It was the second time that a vocal group of opponents to the project, which would allow Phillips 66 to build a rail spur extension and import oil by rail to its refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, showed up in front of the courthouse to rally against the project. If approved, the company would be able to bring in 150 trains per year, each bearing 80 tanker cars filled with crude oil. The project was denied on a 3-2 vote by the SLO County Planning Commission last year, then quickly appealed by Phillips 66 and SLO County resident Jeff Edwards to the Board of Supervisors.
On March 14, Martinez and others like her got their wish. After hearing from almost 200 public speakers, the board voted 3-1 March 14 to uphold the Planning Commission’s denial.
Supervisor Debbie Arnold was the lone vote against upholding the denial. At the hearing, Arnold said she believed such policy decisions could cumulatively drive up fuel prices, and she worried that Phillips 66 would increase the use of oil-hauling trucks on county roads in lieu of using trains.
“My fear is that today’s decision will put more trucks hauling flammable material on our roads,” Arnold said, “our crumbling roads.”
Many of those who opposed the rail spur raised concerns about the safety of the oil-hauling trains, which they worried could derail, crash, and even explode. Supervisor Bruce Gibson indicated that, while the risk of such a disaster might be low, the consequences should it happen could be far-reaching catastrophic.
“I’m not sanguine in sitting back and accepting that kind of risk,” Gibson said.
Safety concerns also played a role in Supervisor Lynn Compton’s decision to vote to uphold the denial, despite the fact that she disagreed with some of the county staff findings in support of it. Compton, whose 4th District is home to the refinery and proposed rail spur, said that while some opposed to the project exaggerated such concerns, some worries about the safety of the project from residents in her district still had merit.
“I believe their concerns are legitimate and they’re genuinely worried,” Compton said.
Compton added that she didn’t feel Phillips 66 did enough to communicate with those residents, which exacerbated their fears.
“I believe the concerns really mushroomed over the last couple years,” she said.
Compton’s support for the denial was good news for Nipomo residents Kathy and Kent Harvey. Both attended the March 13 rally, and wanted their supervisor to keep the rail spur and oil trains out of their backyard.
“We have some small hope that she might be convinced,” Kent Harvey said.
Compton faced criticism earlier this year for her vote to support a letter from the board opposing the proposed Chumash Marine Sanctuary, and faced accusations from some of the sanctuary supporters for being too cozy with oil and gas interests. Prior to her vote, Compton said she listened to both sides of the issue before making her decision.
“It shouldn’t be tainted by speculation about how a supervisor will vote,” she said.
Supervisor John Peschong, whose political consulting firm did work for Phillips 66 in 2015, recused himself from the vote.
While the project’s opponents celebrated their victory, the battle over the project could wage on. Phillips 66 can appeal the board’s decision to the 12-member California Coastal Commission and can fight the decision in court.