Paso Robles officials are urging federal authorities to improve rail car safety, reduce train speeds and provide more information and training to first responders in the event of an emergency.
The council’s action comes as San Luis Obispo County planners prepare responses to the thousands of comments received on a plan by Phillips 66 Co. to upgrade its Nipomo Mesa refinery to receive crude oil by rail for processing.
The Paso Robles City Council did not take a position on the Phillips 66 project at its meeting Tuesday, though some of the speakers at the meeting urged them to do so.
The council unanimously voted to send a letter to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, which is reviewing proposed rules for improvements to tank car standards and operational requirements for certain trains transporting large volumes of flammable liquids.
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The letter, mailed Wednesday, urges 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, among other points.
“It emphasizes that oil trains have traffic and emergency response time impacts on the city of Paso,” Community Development Director Warren Frace said. “As we have more rail traffic through the center of town, it makes it harder to get around town and will affect tourism.”
A final environmental impact report on the Phillips 66 project is expected in a few months, county Senior Planner Ryan Hostetter said Friday. The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission would hold a hearing on the project after that.
In February, San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx sent a letter to the Planning Commission on behalf of the SLO City Council urging commissioners to deny the project. Numerous other cities, counties and school districts in California have also expressed concern or opposition.
Paso Robles Councilman Fred Strong said Friday that the rail project is a land-use issue that’s in the county’s jurisdiction and should be decided there. The council’s letter would be copied to county planners and supervisors, however.
“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. “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.”
In addition, he noted, local officials don’t have any authority to determine what commodities they want transported by rail.
“We can’t really regulate it directly, but because the federal government does have the ability to regulate it, and because there are bills being introduced in Congress, we can weigh in on those and make our voices heard,” Strong said. “If we’re going to do anything on this, I want it to be meaningful.”
County officials will determine whether Phillips 66 can add 1.3 miles of track to an existing rail spur, including five parallel tracks, an unloading facility and on-site pipelines for trains to deliver crude oil for processing.
Nipomo resident Laurance Shinderman, a member of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group opposed to the project, urged the Paso council to take a position on the project.
“We’ve been so emphatic that you don’t build the transport station, you don’t have the trains coming down the track,” Shinderman said. “They’re taking the position that we need better rail cars but not taking the position to say to Phillips: ‘Don’t build the magnet down there.’”
Phillips 66 plan
The company anticipates unloading up to five trains a week with about 80 tank cars each, with a maximum of about 250 trains arriving each year.
Company officials have said that oil production in California is dropping, and bringing in crude oil by rail from other areas would allow them to offset any reduction in deliveries. The plant now receives crude oil by pipeline.
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 about 20 years.
The Paso Robles council’s letter, based on a sample from the League of California Cities, urges that older “DOT-111” tank cars be phased out, that real-time information be made available quickly to first responders in the event of an accident, and that electronically controlled braking systems be mandated.
“If the federal government accepts some of our suggestions that should improve the safety of every incorporated jurisdiction in our area,” Strong said.