San Luis Obispo County planning staff is recommending that county officials deny Phillips 66 Co.’s proposal to allow its Nipomo Mesa refinery to receive crude oil by rail, saying the trains would adversely affect the public’s health, safety and welfare.
Two days are set aside for a hearing Feb. 4 and 5 for the county Planning Commission to consider the plan, which would allow the company to build a 1.3-mile rail spur from the main rail line to the refinery. As part of the project, the company would install five parallel tracks, an unloading facility and on-site pipelines.
A maximum of 250 trains a year would deliver crude to the refinery. Each train would have three locomotives, two buffer cars and 80 railcars carrying a total of nearly 2.2 million gallons of crude oil, according to county planners.
A staff report released this week recommends planning commissioners deny the project for numerous reasons:
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- It is inconsistent with numerous parts of the county’s General Plan and has significant and unavoidable environmental impacts, including toxic air emissions that exceed health risk thresholds.
- It would negatively impact plants, wildlife and waterways in the event of a derailment or spill.
- It would increase the risk to public safety.
- It would increase the demand for fire protection and emergency response services along the rail routes.
“The project would adversely impact the health, safety and welfare of the public as a result of significant and unavoidable impacts related to air quality, cancer risk, accidental release, fire and potential explosion as a result of the construction and operation of the project,” the staff report by senior planner Ryan Hostetter states.
Concerns from the public about rail accidents, health hazards, fires and explosions are exacerbated because the county, due to federal pre-emption, is not legally able to require certain conditions of approval from Union Pacific along the main rail lines, according to the staff report.
Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss said in an email: “We understand that there are concerns about the project, and we look forward to addressing questions raised in the final EIR during next week’s Planning Commission hearing.”
Of the approximately 24,500 comment letters the county has received on the project, only about 150 have supported it, planners said. Proponents have pointed to Phillips 66’s good safety record locally and the well-paying jobs the company provides.
We understand that there are concerns about the project, and we look forward to addressing questions ... during next week’s Planning Commission hearing.
Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss
But numerous public agencies or elected officials in California — cities, school districts, teachers unions and three state senators — have written letters or passed resolutions against Phillips 66’s plan.
Many of those agencies are located along the rail lines the 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. The company now receives crude by pipeline.
Phillips 66 officials have said that oil production in California is dropping, and bringing in crude oil by rail from a wider range of sources would allow the company to offset any reduction in deliveries from its current suppliers.
The refinery would not increase the amount of material processed there, and no crude oil or refined product would be transported out of the refinery by rail, the company has said. The refined product would be piped to the Rodeo Refinery in Contra Costa County — the same as the refinery’s current operation, according to the staff report.
2.2 million gallons Amount of crude oil that would be carried to the Nipomo refinery by each of up to 250 trains a year
In the 18 months since Phillips 66’s proposal was submitted to the county, local and statewide groups and environmental organizations have rallied opposition to the project. This week, two of those organizations, ForestEthics and the Center for Biological Diversity, sent out emails lauding the planning department staff’s recommendation.
Ethan Buckner of ForestEthics called the staff report “an affirmation of our collective power” and said the document “reflects a bold assertion of principles of public health, safety and climate protection over corporate profit.”
Valerie Love, a clean-energy campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity, called it a huge win for San Luis Obispo residents and other California communities along the proposed rail route.
“This recommendation is unprecedented in how clearly it spells out the health, safety, and environmental risks of this project,” Love said. “Now it’s up to the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to heed the recommendation and reject this dangerous project once and for all.”