Arroyo Grande residents oppose Phillips 66 rail project at meeting

The end of the current stretch of rail line at the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.
The end of the current stretch of rail line at the Phillips 66 refinery on the Nipomo Mesa. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In the first of three proposed presentations to South County agencies Tuesday, Arroyo Grande residents spoke out strongly against a proposed Phillips 66 Co. rail project that would bring up to 250 trains carrying crude oil through the county a year.

"As a citizen of Arroyo Grande and San Luis Obispo County, I am really sick and tired of profits meaning more than people," Kay Gore said at the presentation given during an Arroyo Grande City Council meeting. "Is it worth the property at risk, the lives at risk down the line? Stand up and say, 'we don't want this spur; we don't want these trains.' Stand up for the citizens."

Representatives of Phillips 66 Co., Union Pacific Railroad and the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which opposes the project, were at the meeting to discuss the highly-contested refinery rail project, which is set to go before the county Planning Commission in several months.

At that as-yet unscheduled public hearing, county officials will determine whether Phillips 66 can add 1.3 miles of track to an existing rail spur, including five parallel tracks and an unloading facility for as many as five trains with 80 tank cars per week to deliver crude oil for processing at its Nipomo Mesa refinery. Crude oil now arrives only by pipeline.

Representatives of Phillips 66 say oil production in California is dropping and additional sources of crude oil is needed. The new project would allow the company to serve growing demand as well as add local jobs, they said.

Project manager Jim Anderson also said the tank cars would not be transporting Bakken oil, which has drawn criticism because of its involvement in several rail explosions in the past year. It would instead be transporting a heavier and less volatile form of crude oil, he said.

The plans have drawn criticism from residents throughout the county, who claim that transporting crude oil via train is unsafe because of its volatility and the potential for derailments and explosions. Most also point to what they claim is lax regulation of crude oil transport at the federal level as a reason to deny the project.

Nipomo resident Laurance Shinderman, representing the Mesa Refinery Group, claimed the proposed project was unsafe and unnecessary for the area — he proposed the company instead continue to transport the needed oil via pipeline, rather than the "intrusive" railway project.

"If we don't allow Phillips 66 to build it, the trains won't come," Shinderman said at the meeting Tuesday night. "It's as simple as that."

All of the eight speakers during public comment on the Phillips 66 presentation Tuesday night spoke out against the proposed rail project, citing the same concerns over public health and fear of an explosive derailment.

"The risks of these potential trains is large, but the offset — it doesn't seem like there is anything to offset these large costs to the community," said Arroyo Grande resident Gina Whitaker.

Government bodies throughout the county have responded differently to the project.

In February, San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx sent a letter to the county Planning Commission on behalf of the San Luis Obispo City Council, encouraging the commissioners deny the project; while the Paso Robles City Council voted at the beginning of this month to send a letter, not to the Planning Commission, but to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, asking for improvements to tank car standards and operational requirements for transporting crude oil.

The Arroyo Grande City Council could not take an official stance on the project at its meeting Tuesday night because the item was not on the agenda for council deliberation.

Phillips 66 will hold two more presentations on the project at meetings in South County in the next month. The next is scheduled for April 20 at the Grover Beach City Council meeting; followed by one at the Pismo Beach City Council meeting May 5.