In what was the largest turnout for a public hearing in years, hundreds of local residents and others from around California converged on San Luis Obispo Thursday to urge the county Planning Commission to reject Phillips 66 Co.’s request to receive crude oil by rail.
The hearing came about 18 months after the company submitted its project to the county for review, kicking off a firestorm and deluge of letters from around the state as residents and environmental organizations rallied opposition in communities near the Union Pacific railways.
On Thursday, the days of reckoning had finally arrived.
For several hours, planning commissioners heard appeals from 83 people — a combination of residents from San Luis Obispo County, and northern and southern California, as well as elected officials — all urging they reject a proposal to build a 1.3-mile spur with five parallel tracks from the main rail line to the Nipomo Mesa refinery, an unloading facility at the refinery and on-site pipelines.
“This affects everyone in the county in a major and adverse way,” said James Hencier of Nipomo.
He and other opponents cited numerous public safety and health impacts, air pollution and water quality problems, and the possibility — many said certainty — of a potentially disastrous oil train derailment or spill should the project be allowed to proceed.
“If this project goes forward, we can never go back and change it,” Nipomo resident Jennifer Williams said. “The damage will be done and it will be just a matter of time before an accident happens.”
About 390 people had grabbed speaker comment slips as of Thursday afternoon, including those who spoke that day. Public comment will continue Friday and possibly to a future date, depending on how many of the speakers turn out. None of the 83 public speakers on Thursday spoke in favor of the Phillips 66 proposal.
On Thursday morning in a full meeting room, the commission first heard a report from county planning staff explaining its recommendation for denial of the project, which as proposed would allow five trains a week, for a maximum of 250 trains per year to deliver crude oil to the Nipomo Mesa refinery.
Each train would have three locomotives, two buffer cars and 80 railcars carrying a total of about 2.2 million gallons of crude oil, according to county planners.
But representatives from Phillips 66 urged the commissioners to approve an alternate plan to allow three trains a week instead of five.
“The three-train-per-week project is now our proposed project,” said Jocelyn Thompson of Alston & Bird LLP.
It “eliminates all of the Class 1 impacts with respect to onsite activities,” she added, referring to the highest level of negative impacts to air quality and biological resources referenced in the project’s final Environmental Impact Report.
The county staff report states that three trains a week — or 150 a year — would reduce the significant toxic air emissions to no longer be considered a “Class 1 significant impact.”
However, the county’s planning staff said other significant impacts still would harm the environment even with three trains per week rather than five: construction of the facilities would still disturb environmentally sensitive habitat, and emissions of diesel particulate matter would still remain a “Class 1” impact.
Thompson also told the commission that federal preemption would prevent the commission from imposing conditions along the main rail line to mitigate potential environmental impacts.
In addition, she said, if the project is denied, crude oil will still come into California by rail and eventually reach the refinery, albeit by a different route: Oil would arrive in the Central Valley by train and then be trucked about 110 miles through San Luis Obispo County to Santa Maria, where it would be pumped into a pipeline and sent to the refinery.
“It’s impermissible for you to say that you’re going to deny the project because there’s a train on the tracks,” she said. “The train will come to the San Joaquin Valley and you will be dealing with trucks.”
In response, several local residents said they would prefer trucks over trains, and one San Jose resident said that wouldn’t mean anything to Bay Area residents. “That doesn’t mean anything to us in Northern California,” Jill Sardegna said. “For us there will be trains, one mile long.”
Trains carrying crude oil could enter California at five locations, so the exact routes may vary. Trains from Northern California would generally pass through the Union Pacific rail yard in Roseville, near Sacramento; trains traveling from Southern California would likely pass through the Colton rail yard in San Bernardino County.
The company now receives crude by pipeline.
Phillips 66 officials have repeatedly said oil production in California is dropping, and bringing in crude oil by rail from a wider range of sources would allow the company to offset any reduction in deliveries from its current suppliers. Phillips 66 officials have said the project would maintain more than 200 jobs at the refinery, plus $2.2 million in annual tax revenue to the county.
When asked during a break if layoffs could happen if the project is denied, Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss said, “We’re going to wait and see what is going to happen with the process.”
Several speakers argued that Phillips 66 does not need the project to maintain its current number of employees, but is only interested in increasing profits.
“All they want are some tracks for a rail spur, that all sounds quite harmless,” Nipomo resident Michele Schneiderman said. “They want to make SLO County a hub for the corporation’s stated crude oil by rail strategy.”
If the plan is approved, the refinery would not increase the amount of material processed there, and no crude oil or refined product would be transported out of the refinery by rail, the company has said. The refined product would be piped to the Rodeo Refinery in Contra Costa County — the same as the refinery’s current operation, according to a staff report.
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 for about 20 years.
San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx was among the elected officials or their representatives who urged denial of the project. “Whether it’s five or three trains, our city would be placed at unique risk to this project,” she said.
Paso Robles High School student Gabby Davis also spoke “on behalf of peers at school and youth in the community.”
“How would it make you feel to know that one day you get a phone call and because of an oil train derailment one of your great grandchildren will be impacted,” she asked the commissioners. “Oil trains are dinosaurs and dinosaurs belong in museums.”
At lunch, about 600 people from around the state rallied across the street from the hearing to protest the project. Some supporters were seen too, with green “Protect Jobs” signs, but they were far outnumbered by opponents with “Stop Oil Trains Now” posters and signs proclaiming, “We Risk, They Benefit” and “Invest in Solar.”
Environmental activist candidate Heidi Harmon, a protest organizer, initiated a call-and-response chant, “childen’s safety under attack ... stand up, fight back.”
Among the rally speakers were 24th District congressional candidates Helene Schneider and Salud Carbajal of Santa Barbara.
“All it takes is just one train for a disaster to occur that could wreak havoc,” Schneider, who is mayor of Santa Barbara, told the sign-waving crowd of activists who came from as far away as Los Angeles, Ventura, the San Francisco Bay Area, Fresno and other communities that would be affected by the proposed rail project.
Carbajal, a Santa Barbara County supervisor, cited his opposition to fracking and concerns about public health and safety as his reasons for opposing the Phillips proposal.
“You have to put action to your words or else you’re just blowing hot air,” Carbajal said.
Project opponents at the protest rally included representatives of the California Nurses Association, Surfrider Foundation, and teachers who said school districts along the rail line throughout the state opposed the project. Many had sent letters of opposition to the county over the past year.
Their main concerns were the potential for dangerous explosions from oil trains and toxins released from the transport of diesel fuel.
Cal Poly student Kyle Jordan said the university’s Associated Students Inc. student government board voted in favor of a resolution opposing the project as well.
“The official voice of 20,000 students encourages the Planning Commission to reject this proposal,” Jordan said.
Tribune staff writer Nick Wilson contributed to this report.