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Truth as casualty in public policy



Editor’s note: This column was written prior to the March 14 Board of Supervisors meeting. To read about the Philips 66 rail spur vote, click here.

This week will witness a continuation of a mini-drama in the SLO County Board of Supervisors Chamber as hearings and public comment play out over the proposed Phillips 66 on-site rail expansion at their Nipomo refinery.

No doubt the chamber will be full to overflowing as the democratic process works itself out in what will no doubt be strongly emotional in content but short on facts. I say short on facts as the public opinion is vested on one side or the other; we are well beyond reasoned debate about the benefits and costs associated with anything having to do with fossil fuel extraction, processing, transportation or sale in the state of California.

Most likely Phillips 66’s appeal to the Board of Supervisors to overturn the decision to deny Phillips a permit to add a rail spur for off-loading of oil at their Nipomo Refinery will be disapproved. It’s not hard to count the votes with Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill long ago making their opposition to the project well known. Chairman John Peschong recused himself as his private consulting firm represented Phillips during the original Planning Commission phase of the approval process, leaving only Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton’s two votes for a stalemate, which is a denial of the project. Most likely, Supervisor Compton will also vote no as opposition to the project originated in her district and has been quite strong against the rail expansion since its inception. I don’t know how Supervisor Arnold will vote, but if she asked my opinion I would advise her to vote no with the majority, simply because that’s what most of her constituents want and “tilting at windmills” is an exercise in futility.

It isn’t that I disapprove of the project, quite the opposite actually. The refinery is one of the very few private-sector employers in the county that allows men and women with less than a college education to earn starting salaries around $80,000 a year, a genuine “head-of-household” job. The highest paying jobs in SLO County are invariably public employment jobs, which, on average, significantly out-perform the local private sector in wages and benefits. Phillips 66 operations generate more than 200 such jobs on-site and bolster another 1,200 contractors and related employers throughout the county, easily generating millions of dollars of economic activity with taxes to support schools and other essential services. If Phillips is not able to expand its operations, this makes the refinery less efficient, setting off warning flags to corporate bean-counters. The facility is more than 60 years old and at some point the corporation may have to recalculate the benefit of operating anywhere in California, let alone on the Central Coast.

Personally, I found the arguments used against the project to be specious and mostly uninformed, largely generated by a small group of people on the Mesa who decided to relocate within sight and sound of a major industrial facility and then complain about its operations. Their assertions that they cared about the Phillips employees were belied when opposition leadership was overheard by a Bay Area radio station telling Phillips employees that they could find employment elsewhere if they lost their jobs. For example, local fast-food outlets seem to always have help-wanted signs in their windows; the disparity in pay and benefits, of course, is not any concern of those dedicated to preserving and saving the earth, regardless of the cost or human misery produced.

Protestations about safety formed the basis of a fear campaign that was quite effective in misinforming the general public. Images of spectacular train derailments and exploding rail tank cars provided graphic images to a public uninitiated in the world of hazardous materials transportation. The word “blast zone” became a topic of conversation to people who blithely traveled our highways without a thought of any potential risk to themselves or family while surrounded by vehicles carrying volatile and toxic materials. Opponents of the Phillips project ensured that video and slide images of worst-case scenarios were imprinted upon the public psyche.

Some years back, while working in emergency services, I trained and qualified as an emergency services hazardous materials specialist and instructor. As such, one becomes quite familiar with what is being moved and the associated hazards and proper responses and risks to responders and the public. Transportation of oil barely evoked concern except under the most extreme and rare circumstances. All of the anguish produced in public awareness by the opponents, while politically effective in their goal of halting expansion of the local oil industry, will not make anyone one iota safer from the effects of a train derailment. Trains routinely transport incredibly dangerous materials through our community and have been doing so for virtually all of the 20th century and nobody noticed, except for the responder community whose job it was to know and care about such things. Even more hazardous cargo transits our county via Highway 101 and pose a far greater risk due to the frequency of the shipments.

None of that mattered to the opponents whose sole goal was halting any expansion of the Phillips 66 facility. So, while the drama continues, the outcome of this theater was pre-determined to the detriment of everyone.

Al Fonzi is a member of the Republican Party of SLO County and an Army lieutenant colonel of military intelligence who had a 35-year military career, serving in both the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

-- Al Fonzi - Atascadero

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