Cities, school districts and public officials throughout California have signaled their opposition to a proposed project at the Nipomo Mesa refinery that would allow it to receive oil by rail, but nearly all San Luis Obispo County public agencies have stayed out of the fray.
Only the city of San Luis Obispo and the Lucia Mar Unified Teachers Association have urged the county not to approve the project — despite intense local lobbying by regional and statewide opponents.
More than 40 public agencies or elected officials in California — cities, school districts, teachers unions and three state senators — have penned letters or passed resolutions against Phillips 66 Co.’s plan to upgrade its refinery so it can receive train car crude oil deliveries.
Many of those agencies are located along the rail lines the oil trains could travel en route to San Luis Obispo County. Trains carrying crude oil could enter California at five locations, so the exact routes may vary.
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The county received thousands of comments on draft environmental reports for the project before the comment period ended Nov. 24. Since then, the county has received dozens more letters and emails.
The project has generated statewide attention thanks in part to environmental organizations that stirred up opposition in communities near the Union Pacific railways. One such group, ForestEthics, has an “oil train blast zone” map showing potential areas of danger in an oil train catastrophe.
Local opponents, led by the grassroots Mesa Refinery Watch Group, have organized protest rallies, attended numerous council meetings and sent a steady flow of updates about rail accidents to elected officials statewide.
“We keep the pot simmering,” said Nipomo resident Laurance Shinderman, a member of the group’s steering committee.
When asked why many local communities haven’t taken a position while agencies elsewhere in the state have done so, Shinderman offered a theory: “This is the home-court advantage of Phillips 66. Guys belong to Rotary clubs and associations and spread the money around and have tight relationships.”
Indeed, some letters in support of the project note that refinery workers live in the county and volunteer or give money for various causes. The Arroyo Grande-Grover Beach chamber’s letter called the refinery a major economic contributor, providing more than 200 jobs and an active community presence.
Others have noted that their agencies don’t have any decision-making power over the project.
County schools Superintendent Jim Brescia said several school districts have been asked to comment but that school boards are encouraged to comment only on issues over which they have direct authority.
“This is a valid issue with valid concerns that should be addressed to the governing bodies that have jurisdiction,” he added.
In a statement on the County Office of Education website, he wrote: “Student safety is a primary concern of all schools in our county, and we believe that the concerns expressed regarding the proposed rail spur are legitimate (and) merit research, review and discussion by the public and the agencies with the regulatory authority.”
Pro and con letters
While the county has received some letters of support for the Phillips 66 project, they are far outnumbered by opponents.
The opposition letters come from Bay Area cities such as Fremont, Oakland, San Jose and San Leandro; from Santa Barbara and Ventura county cities including Carpinteria, Goleta, Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura.
There are opposition letters from the Monterey and Ventura county boards of supervisors; the North County Fire Protection District of Monterey County; and several school districts. Homeowners associations in San Jose, Berkeley and the Santa Lucia Hill Master Homeowners Association in San Luis Obispo have sent letters of opposition.
So has the San Luis Obispo-based Central Coast Nurse Practitioners & Physician Assistants.
The president of the California Teacher Association wrote in June, “Hundreds of California schools are located near current and future oil train routes. With five major oil train derailments, fires and explosions having occurred in the United States and Canada over just the past five months, we believe that safety must be put first.”
State Sen. Bill Monning, whose district includes San Luis Obispo, Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Calabasas, and Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, have written letters of opposition. “Increased oil-by-rail through not only San Luis Obispo County, but neighboring communities, poses significant and unavoidable threats, as a derailment near a heavily populated city like San Luis Obispo could be catastrophic,” Monning wrote.
Supporters include the Arroyo Grande-Grover Beach and Nipomo chambers of commerce and about a dozen companies that provide services or products to the refinery.
“The Nipomo Chamber of Commerce is intimately familiar with the refinery and its continued safe operation on the Nipomo Mesa for over 50 years, and have the utmost confidence in the refinery’s ability to continue to operate safely and effectively,” chamber President Richard Malvarose wrote.
“The Santa Maria Refinery has taken a very proactive and responsible approach to address the dwindling flow of crude oil being delivered to the sole pipeline here on the Central Coast,” he added.
Cuesta College President Gil Stork and college Athletic Director Robert Mariucci received criticism in June for writing letters in support of the project on college letterhead. Stork told Cuesta College trustees that he erred in using official letterhead but did not intend to retract the letter unless directed to do so.
“The Phillips 66 Santa Maria Refinery has been quietly doing its job for 60 years,” Stork wrote in his letter, “and what I have observed is a business that operates safely and with respect for our community.”
Mariucci’s letter points out that Phillips 66 has been the major sponsor of Cuesta’s annual Women’s Basketball Tournament for 30 years.
Phillips 66 now receives crude oil by pipeline and has applied to San Luis Obispo County for permits to build a 1.3-mile spur connecting to the main rail line, so that the Nipomo Mesa refinery can get crude by rail.
The rail spur project would include installing five parallel tracks, an unloading facility and on-site pipelines for trains to deliver crude oil for processing.
Company officials have said oil production in California is dropping and they need to bring crude oil by rail from other areas. Phillips 66 anticipates unloading up to five trains a week with about 80 tank cars each, with a maximum of about 250 trains arriving each year.
Trains entering California from any of five locations would arrive at the Phillips 66 refinery either from the north or the south.
Trains from Northern California would generally pass through the Union Pacific rail yard in Roseville, near Sacramento; trains traveling from Southern California would likely pass through the Colton rail yard in San Bernardino County.
Opponents say oil trains pose a danger to cities all along the rail line because a derailment could expose them to fires, explosions or toxins.
Currently, no more than six freight trains and six passenger trains pass through San Luis Obispo County each day on the Union Pacific’s Coast line. Freight trains already carry crude oil, as well as lumber, vehicles and hazardous materials, according to the rail project’s environmental report.
A crude oil train traverses the county as it moves from San Ardo to Los Angeles two to three times a week. It has been in operation for about 20 years.
A final environmental impact report for the project is being written. No date has been scheduled for its release, nor has a hearing date been set before the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission, Senior Planner Ryan Hostetter said this week.
When county planners started working on the project, Hostetter said, they never anticipated the flood of public participation.
Some of the response is due to efforts by Mesa Refinery Watch.
Shinderman said the group’s activities caught the attention of environmental groups about 15 months ago. Since then, Sierra Club, ForestEthics and the Center for Biological Diversity have organized letter-writing campaigns and pushed elected officials to take a stance.
Many outside the county have done that, including an emphatic letter from the mayor of Goleta in Santa Barbara County.
“The transport of large quantities of volatile crude oil on a milelong train through our city is simply too risky and unnecessary,” Paula Perotte wrote.
Local opponents have attended numerous council meetings in Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Pismo Beach to urge them to join the list of cities against the plan. None of the three have taken a stance.
“The council, at this point, the majority has not been interested in writing a letter or taking a position,” Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham said. “Me, as a candidate for 3rd District supervisor, I personally can’t (comment) because that might come before me if I was elected.”
She added: “I can see the frustration on the individuals’ faces when they come to public comment because they want to know, ‘Why aren’t you guys doing this?’ ”
Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals said the council is still researching the project. He anticipates it will discuss at some point whether to take a position or stay neutral.
Some agencies have written letters of concern without expressing outright opposition. Those include San Luis Coastal Unified School District Superintendent Eric Prater; the cities of Paso Robles and San Jose; the Goleta Water District; and Santa Barbara County’s 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal. Carbajal is running for the 24th District congressional seat in 2016, when Lois Capps will retire.
The Paso Robles City Council’s letter urged more regulation of crude oil transport, improved rail cars, limited train speeds through cities, enhanced training and communication with emergency responders, and consideration of impacts on the local economy.
Paso Robles Councilman Fred Strong said in April that the rail project is a land-use issue that’s in the county’s jurisdiction and should be decided there.
“I’m not going to presume that I can go to the Board of Supervisors and tell them how to run their land use,” Strong said at the time. “I advocated that let’s keep our nose out of the county’s business and address the issues in our jurisdiction — the safety of the people and the property within city limits.”
To learn more about the Phillips 66 project and to read the comment letters, go to the county website here and select the link for the “Phillips 66 Company rail spur extension project.”