Several community members, concerned about letters sent by Cuesta College's president and athletic director in support of a South County refinery’s proposal to move crude oil by rail, called on the college board this week to rescind the letters and reject the plan.
The letters, from Cuesta College President Gil Stork and Athletic Director Robert Mariucci, were written separately on college stationery in support of a rail spur project proposed by Phillips 66 Co.
Phillips 66 now receives crude oil by pipeline and has applied to San Luis Obispo County for permits to build a 1.3-mile spur connecting to the main rail line, so the Nipomo Mesa refinery can get crude by rail.
In their letters, Stork and Mariucci both note longtime support from Phillips 66 for college programs and sports teams, including serving as the major sponsor of the annual Women's Basketball Tournament for 30 years.
But project opponents said Stork and Mariucci should not have penned their support on college letterhead. Several people asked the Cuesta College Board of Trustees, at the board’s meeting Wednesday, to oppose the project.
“We urge the board to do the right thing and repudiate this letter and lend its name to the towns that have said no to this dangerous project,” Nipomo resident Laurance Shinderman said.
Arroyo Grande resident Al Brill, in a letter to Cuesta board President Patrick Mullen, wrote: “A community college should be supportive of the welfare of the entire community, not just a corporation that makes donations.”
Mullen said the board has not taken a position on the project and that both Stork and Mariucci were writing as individuals. The board did not discuss placing the proposal on a future agenda.
Stork told the board that he erred in using official letterhead but did not intend to retract the letter unless directed by the board to do so.
“It is my opinion,” Stork said. “Just because I don’t have the same persuasion as the speakers here tonight doesn't make it wrong.”
Stork told the board he wrote the letter after being approached by a group of advocates for the Phillips 66 project. In a phone interview Thursday, he said he was asked for his support by the marketing firm working with Phillips 66.
On Thursday, Maggie Cox, president of Barnett Cox & Associates public relations and marketing firm, confirmed that her company is working with Phillips 66 and asked Stork to write a letter of support.
Stork said, “I fully support their efforts to be a thriving business in the community. I meant in no way to imply that this was a college endorsement.”
Stork said he wasn’t aware of Mariucci’s letter, nor did he know if anyone approached Mariucci for his support.
Stork wrote to county planners last November that Phillips 66 “has proven itself with its 60-year track record of sound operations” and produced a thorough environmental impact report that supported a “yes” vote on the project.
Mariucci wrote two identical letters, in January and November 2014, saying the project would be beneficial, not only for the refinery but for the entire community by allowing it to operate cost-efficiently and at full capacity. He did not speak Wednesday.
The Cuesta College letters have not been the only ones to draw scrutiny from project opponents.
Outgoing Lucia Mar Unified School District Superintendent Jim Hogeboom also wrote a letter to county planners on district letterhead in January 2014 about the support the refinery has provided to the district. But he did not indicate outright district support for the project.
Hogeboom said he was approached by representatives of Phillips 66 to write a letter in support of the rail project but declined because he “did not feel comfortable taking a position on it.”
Instead, he said he would write a letter acknowledging the support that Phillips 66 has provided to the district in the past. Hogeboom said he routinely writes letters acknowledging local entities’ support for the district and is not required to take each of those before the school board for approval.
No school district boards in the county have sent letters taking a position on the project.
San Luis Obispo County officials will determine whether Phillips 66 can add 1.3 miles of track, including five parallel tracks, an unloading facility and on-site pipelines for trains to deliver crude oil for processing.
Company officials have said that oil production in California is dropping and they need to bring crude oil by rail from other areas to offset any reduction. 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.
Opponents say the oil trains pose a danger to cities all along the rail line because a derailment could expose them to fires, explosions or toxins.
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 rail project’s environmental report.
A crude oil train 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.