Grover Beach to write letter opposing Phillips 66 rail project

Rail cars sit on a rail line at the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa not far from the main tracks that pass by the refinery.
Rail cars sit on a rail line at the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa not far from the main tracks that pass by the refinery. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The Grover Beach City Council has decided to pen a letter to the county Planning Commission opposing a rail spur project that would allow Phillips 66 Co. to transport crude oil by rail to its Nipomo Mesa refinery.

The council’s action late Monday night came less than a week after Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham announced she would write a similar letter of opposition to the county. The city of San Luis Obispo has already officially opposed the project.

The Grover Beach council directed its staff to draft two letters, one urging federal officials to consider more regulation of crude oil transport and another opposing the Phillips 66 project because of fears it would “create a hazardous and unsafe environment in our community.”

“I just can’t support this project, and feel like this is the only chance we have to say anything about it,” Councilwoman Mariam Shah said. “I feel like this is our last chance to have any control over this whatsoever.”

The draft letters will come before the City Council for approval at a future meeting.

Both opponents and supporters of the project attended Monday’s night, with opponents carrying yellow signs proclaiming "Stop Oil Trains Now" and supporters sporting green shirts reading "Protect Jobs." About 45 speakers addressed the council in nearly two hours of public comment.

At an as-yet unscheduled public hearing, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission will determine whether Phillips 66 can add 1.3 miles of track to an existing rail spur at its Nipomo Mesa oil refinery. The project would add five parallel tracks and an unloading facility to accommodate as many as five trains with 80 tank cars per week delivering crude oil for processing at the refinery. Those oil trains would bring about five additional train trips a week through the county.

Phillips 66 representatives say oil production in California is dropping, and bringing in crude oil by rail from other areas would allow them to offset reduction in more local deliveries they now get by pipeline. The company has also said the project is necessary to keep the Nipomo refinery open.

City Manager Bob Perrault said city staff was concerned with the potential for derailment and oil spills in the city limits, as well as noise, air quality and the length of the trains.

Both Grover Beach Police Chief John Peters and Five Cities Fire Authority Chief Steve Lieberman said they had concerns over the city’s readiness to manage and respond to a derailment, though they stressed the city and county emergency services have trained for such an incident.

The council echoed staff’s safety concerns while emphasizing that opposing the project was not a reflection on Phillips 66 and its operations.

“Phillips 66, they’ve been a good neighbor as far as I’m concerned,” Councilwoman Karen Bright said. “I was impressed by the folks that have taken the time to be here and speak so highly of their employer. That though isn’t really the issue.”

More than 40 public agencies or elected officials in California have penned letters or passed resolutions opposing Phillips 66's plan, including the city of San Luis Obispo.