An average of 52 trucks a day carrying thousands of gallons of crude oil will rumble through San Luis Obispo County to the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa for at least another year.
The company increased oil tanker deliveries in 2016 to replace supply lost by a broken pipeline in Santa Barbara. A temporary permit to allow trucking was extended for another year in May, after the company paid the county $15,914 and bought equipment to settle alleged permit violations. That raises concern for some community members about traffic safety and possible oil spills.
Just a week ago, a semitruck carrying 6,200 gallons of highly-flammable crude oil was about 2.5 miles from its destination at the Phillips 66 refinery when the brakes went out and it rolled off the road to avoid a car. No one was injured, and less than a gallon of oil spilled.
“It gives us concern that if that happened before, it will happen again. That’s just the inevitability of it,” said Laurance Shinderman, of Nipomo, who is active in the Mesa Refinery Watch Group.
Phillips 66 declined to comment, but a representative directed The Tribune to a section on the company’s website about the issue, which notes that “safety and reliability are our first priority.”
Hundreds of tanker trucks have been delivering oil to the refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, called the Santa Maria Refinery, and to a pump station in Santa Maria to fill a supply gap created by the shutdown of the Plains All American Pipeline in Santa Barbara County in May 2015. One of those deliveries to Santa Maria ended in a driver’s death last fall.
According to the California Highway Patrol, Elias Garcia, 45, of Bakersfield had just unloaded his truck when his wife called to check on him about 2 a.m. Sept. 13, 2016. Garcia told her he was tired and on his way home.
He never made it.
Officers suspect he fell asleep at the wheel around 7:30 a.m. on Highway 166 near New Cuyama. The tanker swerved over the double-yellow lines and slammed into several oncoming trucks. He was ejected into a dirt field and pronounced dead at the scene.
Like rail cars, large tanker trucks that transport crude oil result in far more fatalities and incidents than pipelines, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report on oil and gas transportation. On average, about 14 fatalities a year were reported in pipeline incidents between 2007 and 2011. By comparison, in 2010 alone, 3,675 fatalities resulted from incidents involving large trucks.
Locally, the intersection of Willow Road and Highway 1 where the semitruck crashed last week is frequented by tanker trucks and is a concern to local residents like Shinderman, who witness cars zooming by in low visibility sometimes caused by low-lying fog. They are especially concerned because of a sharp right turn near the intersection.
The recent trucking permit issued by the county Air Pollution Control District allows Phillips 66 to maintain the current number of trucks until May 2018.
The district last year issued a notice of violation to the company for violating Health and Safety Code and county rules by failing to inform the county about the refinery receiving oil trucks.
The company wracked up civil penalties for 61 days that could have been assessed at up to $610,000. It settled the violation with the county in May by agreeing to pay $15,914 to the district. It also promised to provide a portable solar-powered trailer for a mobile air monitoring station on the Nipomo Mesa.