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Decision on Nipomo refinery’s oil-by-rail plan put off again

Phillips 66 hopes to extend a rail line to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, which would allow deliveries from three oil trains a week..
Phillips 66 hopes to extend a rail line to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, which would allow deliveries from three oil trains a week.. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

After several more hours of public comment on a controversial oil-by-rail plan Thursday, San Luis Obispo County planning commissioners started to debate various conditions to approve the project, but they did not reach a decision.

Instead, the proposal by Phillips 66, which has been the subject of numerous Planning Commission meetings this year, will again be continued. It is scheduled to return Oct. 5.

In May, a move to deny the project failed on a 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Jim Harrison, Jim Irving and Don Campbell voting “no.” The commission directed planning staff to return with conditions for approving the proposal to allow the oil company to build a 1.3-mile spur that would connect to the main rail line so the Nipomo Mesa refinery can get crude oil by rail.

The proposal calls for deliveries from three trains per week. Each train would have three locomotives and 80 rail cars to haul about 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.

It’s expected that any decision by the commission will be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.

“I’m concerned that if we were to deny the project today without establishing conditions of approval for a smaller project with fewer trains and specific hours of operation, that this would leave a wide-open project for the Board of Supervisors to consider next year,” Irving said.

In the afternoon, the commission started working its way through a 33-page document of 97 conditions for the project, asking questions and making minor changes and additions.

Commissioner Eric Meyer suggested the commission take a straw vote to see which way commissioners were leaning on the project.

Commissioner Ken Topping agreed, saying, “I think the public deserves to know where we stand individually.”

But Harrison pointed out that they had already taken one vote on the project in May.

Irving said his mind is not made up on the project, and he said he wants to look at it point by point and then make a decision.

“I know it drags it out more,” he said. “I know we are on our seventh hearing, but that’s the way I would like to proceed.”

The commission did not reach a consensus to take a straw vote.

Earlier this year, the Planning Commission held five days of hearings on the rail spur project that drew thousands of people from around the state, many opposing the project.

Phillips 66 has said oil production in California is dropping, and they need to bring crude oil by rail from other areas.

The refinery now receives crude oil by pipeline and by truck. The county found out about the trucking during the April 15 hearing on the project.

Planning staff has recommended a condition that would not allow any further trucking of crude oil on or off the refinery property with the approval of the rail spur project. Phillips 66 suggests that “trucking of coke (petroleum carbon) and sulfur from the refinery and delivery of feedstock, including crude oil, to the refinery shall be limited to an annual average maximum of 49 trucks per day.”

But the Planning Commission did not reach that condition — No. 33 out of the 97.

Earlier in the day, public comment was opened to allow people to speak on the new conditions of approval.

About 90 people spoke, with all but four opposed to the project. Most of the speakers live in the county, including more than two dozen Nipomo residents who suggested additional conditions to deal with air pollution, light and odor problems.

Paul Stolpman suggested that Phillips 66 shouldn’t be allowed to operate the three locomotive engines on days when county air officials predict the area will violate air quality standards.

Lisa Ritterbuck, who lives on an organic farm near Avila Beach, said, “I’m interested in safety, in renewable clean energy and in being a good steward of our environment. This project compromises all three of those interests.”

The few supporters who spoke Thursday said there’s a need for the product the refinery is processing.

“One way or another, this oil is going to get to the refinery,” said Devin Miller of Arroyo Grande. “But is hundreds of trucks driving down the highway any safer than just a few trains and a small rail terminal?”

He added that the families of Phillips 66 employees also live in the community.

“Why would they endanger those people?” he asked.

Mike Brown, government affairs director for the Coalition of Labor Agriculture & Business of San Luis Obispo County, also reiterated his support.

“What you’re being asked to do is deny the project on all these potential uptrack incidents that have a very small overall statistical chance,” Brown said. “... You can’t make these decisions based on emotion.”

By the end of the hearing, the Planning Commission had reached condition No. 17 before adjourning at 5 p.m. Public comment will not be reopened at the October hearing.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

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