New study on Phillips 66 refinery's proposed rail line gauges risk of oil spills

The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
The Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The main hazards associated with a proposed rail project at a Nipomo Mesa refinery include potential accidents at that facility or along the Union Pacific mainline that could result in oil spills, fires or explosions, according to a draft environmental report released Friday.

The document assessed three rail routes to the Phillips 66 refinery and found the project could significantly impact public safety if a crude oil spill results in a fire or explosion near a populated area. But the risk within any individual city or county would be far less, the report said.

An analysis estimated the average incident rate of a release of 100 gallons or more of oil from a train traveling between the Phillips 66 refinery and rail yards in Roseville or Colton would be once every 46 years to 76 years, depending on the route.

The probability of an oil release anywhere along the entire rail line in California would be greater — estimated at once every 19 years to 31 years.

But explosions are considered unlikely with a 100-gallon spill.

San Luis Obispo County planners received about 800 comments on an initial environmental report released this past November. That study examined Phillips 66’s proposal to add 1.3 miles of new track to an existing rail spur, including five parallel tracks, an unloading facility and on-site pipelines for trains to deliver crude oil for processing.

This newly released draft report expands the analysis of impacts from the project beyond San Luis Obispo County, according to the executive summary.

Some project opponents are particularly concerned about any crude oil arriving by rail. Other worries include air pollution, noise and odor impacts.

The public now has 45 days to comment on the draft report, with a public workshop scheduled for Nov. 5. A San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Jan. 29.

The project remains unchanged: Phillips 66 anticipates unloading up to five trains a week with about 80 tank cars each, with a maximum of about 250 trains arriving each year. Crude oil would be transferred from the new unloading facility to existing storage tanks via a new on-site, above-ground pipeline.

No crude oil or refined product would be transported out of the refinery by rail. Also, no Bakken crude will be delivered to the refinery as part of the project — a response to concerns that light crude oil from the Bakken region in North Dakota may be more volatile than other crudes.

The refinery, which has operated since 1955, currently receives crude oil by an underground pipeline and processes about 44,000 barrels of oil a day. It specializes in cheap, heavier crude oil from a variety of onshore and offshore sources, most in Santa Barbara County.

Company officials have said that oil production in California is dropping and bringing in crude oil by rail from other sources would allow them to offset any reduction in deliveries.

The crude oil is refined into gas oil and a flammable oil called naphtha, which is piped to the company's oil refinery in Rodeo in Contra Costa County. There it is refined into gasoline, diesel fuel and jet fuel.

The plant also produces petroleum coke and sulfur as byproducts in the refining process. The materials are sold and shipped out by rail car to be used in a variety of industrial processes.

Draft report

Trains could enter California at five different locations and, depending on the route, would arrive at the Phillips 66 refinery either from the north or from the south.

It’s unknown what route Union Pacific would take to the refinery, but trains coming from Northern California would generally pass through the Union Pacific rail yard in Roseville, near Sacramento, according to the report.

Trains traveling from Southern California would likely pass through the Colton rail yard in San Bernardino County.

“While the exact route the trains would take to get to these two rail yards is speculative, all of the routes within and outside of California would traverse populated areas that could be impacted in the event of a release that resulted in a fire or explosion,” the report states.

The report also found that trains would be traveling about 3 miles per hour on the Phillips 66 property, so it’s unlikely they could be hit hard enough to result in a spill. The hazard impacts at the refinery were found to be less than significant, according to the draft report.

The project would include a system to control any spills that happen on the refinery property, which would most likely occur during the unloading process, the report states.

The risk would also be substantially lowered by using the safest tank car design available, which could reduce the probability of an oil spill by about 74 percent, according to the report.

But, it states, the county may be preempted by federal law from requiring mitigations or conditions on the Union Pacific mainline tracks.

Currently, no more than six freight trains and six passenger trains pass through San Luis Obispo County each day on the Union Pacific’s Coast line. Freight trains already carry crude oil as well as lumber, vehicles and hazardous materials, according to the report.

A crude oil train currently traverses the county as it moves from San Ardo to Los Angeles two to three times a week. It has been in operation about 20 years.