Day 2: Dozens more SLO County residents urge denial of Phillips 66 oil-by-rail plan

Audience members listen during public comment on Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail plan at Friday’s Planning Commission hearing in San Luis Obispo.
Audience members listen during public comment on Phillips 66’s oil-by-rail plan at Friday’s Planning Commission hearing in San Luis Obispo. clambert@thetribunenews.com

The second day of a two-day San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing picked up where Thursday ended: with speaker after speaker urging denial of Phillips 66 Co.’s proposal to upgrade its Nipomo Mesa refinery to receive crude oil by rail.

The commission also heard from some supporters Friday — including local residents, Phillips 66 employees and union representatives — although they were outnumbered by the large contingent of opponents with “Derail the Spur” buttons.

About 200 people spoke during the two-day hearing, which was continued to Feb. 25, when anyone else who wants to comment will be given a chance to speak.

It’s possible, planning staff said, that the commission could wrap up public comment that day and move to questions and deliberations. The Planning Commission’s vote can be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.

On Friday, supporters, especially those who work at the refinery, stressed its commitment to safety, the quality of jobs it provides and the importance of bringing another source of crude to “help us maintain the viability of the refinery,” as Robert Rodriguez, draftsman/designer for Phillips 66, said.

“If the refinery is not profitable, in my opinion it will be shut down,” said his colleague Juan Hernandez, a training lead at the Nipomo Mesa plant.

“The refinery has been a great neighbor and has a great safety record,” Hernandez said. “I ask you to consider us locals who grew up here in this county and approve the project.”

Up to 250 oil trains a year in plan

As proposed, Phillips 66’s plan 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.

On Thursday, representatives from Phillips 66 urged the commissioners to approve an alternate plan to allow three trains a week instead of five.

Jocelyn Thompson of Alston & Bird LLP said doing so would eliminate “all of the Class 1 impacts with respect to on-site activities.”

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.

Many of Friday’s speakers against the project came from Nipomo — near where the Phillips 66 refinery is on the Mesa — and some, like Bill Kennedy, brought props.

Kennedy, who moved to the area eight years ago, donned a respirator while he showed a video of a Union Pacific diesel locomotive emitting smoke into the air.

Another resident showed a two-minute video of an oil train rumbling down train tracks.

“Just a single Class 1 impact is a reason to deny the project,” said Nipomo resident Jamie Herbon, referring to the highest level of negative impacts to air quality and biological resources that is referenced in the project’s final environmental impact report.

“This one has 11 Class 1 impacts,” she said.

Richmond resident Nick Despota asked what a few disasters, including a massive methane gas leak in Porter Ranch, near Los Angeles, and the Flint, Mich., water crisis have in common.

“They all resulted from a misplaced trust in the safety of familiar technologies and misplaced trust in the ability of well-meaning public officials to assess the risk of those technologies,” he said. “Please don’t create the conditions for another environmental disaster somewhere, someday in this state.”

Supporters weigh in

All of the comments Thursday came from project opponents. On Friday morning, commissioners started hearing from supporters.

The first, San Luis Obispo resident Ridge Hammond joked that “somebody had to break the monotony,” before urging that the commission work more collaboratively with Phillips 66 to “put a workable solution together.”

“As a taxpayer, I expected something more and better, something that would have sparked a collaborative dialogue between the two parties here: Phillips 66 and the county,” he said.

“My major point is this project is not going away. Phillips has proposed bringing in oil by truck, which to me is a far worse alternative.”

On Thursday, an attorney for Phillips 66 said that crude oil would still come into California by rail should the project be denied — a point that is included in the “no project” alternative as laid out in the project’s environmental impact report, Phillips 66 officials said.

The crude oil would just reach the Nipomo Mesa refinery by a different route: It would be trucked from the Central Valley through San Luis Obispo County to Santa Maria, Thompson said.

There, it would be pumped into a pipeline and sent to the refinery.

Mike Brown, government affairs director for Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, said: “86 percent of the energy in this country comes from fossil fuels right now, and it’s going to be a long time before meaningful production from other sources takes effect.”

“We all have a responsibility to support industrial processes to maintain our standards of living,” he said.

Arroyo Grande resident Virlon Smoot, a conductor for 42 years for Southern Pacific and later Union Pacific, disputed opponents’ claims of “bomb trains” and “blast zones” and said the railroads and bridges are regularly inspected.

The oil is so thick, he said, that if a train were to derail, “you can almost take a blowtorch and the oil won’t catch fire,” he said.

Marcus Beal, an operations supervisor for Phillips 66’s Nipomo Mesa refinery, noted that “people are always afraid of what they don’t know.”

“I came here because Phillips 66 showed up on my radar as one of the safest refineries in the United States to work at,” he said.

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO