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Santa Barbara County supervisors reiterate opposition to Phillips 66 rail project

Protesters outside a San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 4, 2016. The demonstrators oppose a proposal by Phillips 66 to build a rail spur to allow it to bring crude oil by train to its Nipomo refinery.
Protesters outside a San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing on Feb. 4, 2016. The demonstrators oppose a proposal by Phillips 66 to build a rail spur to allow it to bring crude oil by train to its Nipomo refinery. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Santa Barbara County joined a long list of cities, counties and school districts opposing an oil-by-rail project in southern San Luis Obispo County.

Eighteen months ago, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors agreed to ask their counterparts to the north to reject the request to expand a rail spur at the Phillips 66 refinery just north of the county line.

The refinery currently receives its oil by pipeline, and the Houston-based energy company wants to process oil transported by train.

Supervisors Das Williams, Janet Wolf and Joan Hartmann voted on Tuesday to send another letter to San Luis Obispo County’s board urging it to deny the project.

Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino was out of town on county business, and Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam recused himself, saying “this issue is really beyond our jurisdiction. We’ve already taken a position.”

The project would modify an existing rail spur to allow for crude oil brought by train to be unloaded at the refinery. It would include a nearly 7,000-foot rail spur, construction of five parallel tracks to host unloading trains, new pipelines and an unloading facility.

According to Jefferson Litten, chief of staff to Hartmann, who requested the vote along with Wolf, the 5,200-foot trains that the new tracks would be built for can each transport nearly 2.2 million gallons of oil. Phillips 66 proposed that three trains arrive at the refinery per week.

Soon after the board’s 2015 letter opposing the project, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission denied the rail-spur extension after days of hearings and, according to Litten, more than 24,000 letters of opposition.

The San Luis Obispo supervisors will consider an appeal of that decision on Monday.

The three Santa Barbara supervisors’ opposition was rooted in the potential environmental impacts that oil-carrying trains could have as they pass through the county on their way up to the refinery.

Litten said notable derailments and explosions in Oregon and Quebec had spilled oil, damaged property and even killed people near the accidents.

“The train tracks go right by San Marcos High School, three elementary schools, many businesses, many residential properties, not to mention environmental habitats that are very important,” Wolf said of her district. “We’ve seen the irreparable harm and damage that an oil spill will cause our coastline.”

Several other counties, a number of school districts, and numerous cities, including Santa Barbara, Goleta and Carpinteria, have also sent letters of opposition.

Supporters of the project point to oil’s importance to both the local economy and a primarily petroleum-based society.

“Not in your staff report is how many rail cars already pass through with oil or acid or something else like that through this region,” said COLAB executive director Andy Caldwell, a frequent commenter at supervisor meetings. “If they’re not coming by rail, how much is coming by ship or truck down the freeway or offshore?”

Reducing oil dependence has to start somewhere, Williams argued.

“I want an economy that is thriving, but is also in step with the values of our community,” he said.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at sgoldman@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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