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Opponents speak out against Phillips 66’s Nipomo oil-by-rail project at SLO hearing

More than 150 people packed the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting Monday for the first day of a hearing on Phillips 66 Co.’s proposal to build a rail spur so it can haul 6.6 million gallons of crude oil per week by rail to its Nipomo Mesa refinery.

The crowd that overflowed into the lobby and adjacent conference room was overwhelmingly made up of local and statewide residents opposed to what some called “bomb trains,” a point punctuated by visual acts such as the unfurling of a spool of paper that allegedly contained the signatures of 5,000 opponents to the plan.

At midday, protesters of all ages took to the streets, marching around downtown San Luis Obispo while waving red and yellow signs and chanting “Hey, Phillips, what do we know? No trains in S-L-O.”

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The board is charged with the task of responding to the oil company’s appeal of the county Planning Commission’s 3-2 decision to reject a land-use permit for the project.

No decision was made Monday, and public comments are expected to continue Tuesday, followed by another presentation by Phillips 66 and a follow-up discussion.

The project would bring up to 150 trains through the county a year — each carrying up to 80 tanker cars with the capacity to hold 27,300 gallons of oil.

Supervisor Adam Hill is acting as chairman over the hearings, as Supervisor John Peschong recused himself because Phillips 66 was a client before he was elected in November. Phillips 66 reported paying Peschong’s political consulting and public affairs firm $262,313 in “other political giving” in 2015.

That leaves four supervisors to decide the matter. If the vote is an even split, the Planning Commission decision will stand.

Company officials pitched their case early in the day, led by Refinery Superintendent James Anderson, who called the potential new shipments “crucial to the survival of the refinery.”

He suggested that county staff members who recommended their permit be denied were always opposed to the proposal and “it became evident that the rules were changed” in the middle of the permitting process, which Anderson said was made clear by a requirement that the company rewrite an environmental impact report and that an environmentally sensitive habitat area was identified after Phillips 66 had spent millions of dollars on the three-year application process.

The company has argued that under the Coastal Zone ordinance, an environmentally sensitive habitat area — or ESHA — has to be identified earlier in the process.

Staff disagreed with that interpretation and told supervisors Monday that such areas can be identified during the environmental review process.

Staff recommended the project be denied partly because of ESHA, but also because of significant air quality concerns from diesel particulate matter emissions. DPM emissions would be 7.5 pounds per day at the refinery, exceeding the county Air Pollution Control District’s threshold of 1.25 pounds per day, according to a county staff report.

Anderson said that “crude oil trains have passed through SLO County for decades without incident.” If supervisors don’t allow the company to connect to mainline tracks, “they’ll continue to run, and our community, our refinery, will not benefit from those trains.”

His comments were made in front of overwhelming opposition in the crowd. About 80 people testified against the project, while just a handful were in support.

An oil industry representative, who spoke for the project, testified that California is an energy island with no pipeline coming into the state and that Phillips 66 is simply trying to meet consumer demand.

Opponents included residents and public officials who traveled from Benicia, Berkeley, Davis, Goleta, Sacramento, San Jose, Santa Cruz and across San Luis Obispo County to plead with the supervisors to consider the risks of derailment and explosion in the proposal. The trains would run through areas of their cities that are densely populated.

A Sacramento resident testified that the Capitol building is among the population centers in the “blast zone.”

Ray Yep, who works for Berkeley City Councilwoman Linda Maio, said the council continues to have concerns about the transportation of crude-by-rail and has passed resolutions opposing such projects.

“Union Pacific goes right through our city, by Bayer labs, the Fourth Street shopping area, a vibrant artisan area,” Yep said. “These are dense areas, and we are very concerned with potential derailments, potential spills and other incidents that may occur. The impacts are greater than just your local area.”

Other opponents stressed climate concerns, referring to the plan as an “outdated” fossil fuel infrastructure that one county resident said “is like investing in a typewriter factory.”

San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon stood in front of a banner adorned with the emblems and logos of 29  city governments and school boards that have declared their opposition when she said the project would jeopardize the health and safety of the city and numerous other communities and “give a green light to the transportation of the dirtiest fuel on the planet.”

Martin Akel, with Mesa Refinery Watch Group and one of many Nipomo residents to speak, took issue with Phillips 66’s statements that bringing oil by train from new, diverse sources is “crucial to the survival of the refinery.”

“It’s not about saving jobs. It’s only about profit,” Akel said.

He pointed to the company’s 2012 annual report and a 2013 news release that say the company had been working on a crude-by-rail strategy to build “a pipeline on wheels” as part of a plan to lower crude oil costs and increase profits.

“The refinery and local jobs are not at stake. Anything else they present at this hearing is a red herring meant to deceive you,” he said.

Public comment is expected to continue from 9 a.m. until noon Tuesday.

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