After a third all-day hearing with more than 100 speakers decrying or praising a plan by Phillips 66 Co. to upgrade its Nipomo refinery to receive crude oil by train, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission said Thursday that no decision will be made on the project until March 11 — or even later.
The dozens of speakers Thursday were fairly evenly split on either side of the debate, with supporters stressing the need to maintain about 200 “head-of-household” jobs at the refinery, as well as its long track record of safety and that it’s been a good neighbor in the community.
“The actual crude production in California is going down, not going up,” said Richard Black, a training administrator at Phillips 66’s Rodeo refinery in the east San Francisco Bay Area. “We have to make up the difference from somewhere.”
Opponents, meanwhile, said commissioners should not take into account the company’s safety record or personal relationships. Residents and elected officials from communities along the main rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles have told commissioners they fear a catastrophic train derailment.
“Their plan is an irreversible disaster,” Nipomo resident Nora Lee said. “The effects will be felt instantly with poisonous air pollution.”
The company has applied to San Luis Obispo County 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.
The public has another chance to speak March 11 — county planning staff believe they’re nearing the end of public comments — and then the commissioners can ask questions, deliberate and even make a decision, or continue the process once again to a future date.
Whatever decision they make is expected to be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors, and a new round of hearings would be held.
The first two days of the Planning Commission hearing, held Feb. 4 and 5, drew hundreds of people to San Luis Obispo from around the state, with many urging the commissioners to reject the project. Planning staff has recommended 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 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.
During a previous hearing day, representatives from Phillips 66 urged the commissioners to approve an alternate plan to allow three trains a week instead of five, or a maximum of 150 trains a year.
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” at the refinery, which refers to the highest level of negative impacts referenced in the project’s final environmental impact report.
But emissions of diesel particulate matter would still remain a “Class 1” impact on-site, according to the staff report, and there would still be 10 “Class 1” impacts along the main rail line, such as impacts to air quality, water resources, potential demands on emergency response services and an increased risk to the public in the event of a derailment.
A few residents brought some audio-visuals along: One person showed a news clip of coverage of a massive train derailment in West Virginia last year; another played an audio recording of what he said a “typical crude oil terminal” sounds like, with train wheels squealing along tracks.
And the commission also watched a video comment from Marilaine Savard, a witness of the 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Québec, oil train disaster.
“Once an oil train derails and catches fire, you and your town will never fully recover,” she said. “Lac-Mégantic was a peaceful and beautiful community, just like San Luis Obispo.”
In response, supporters of the Phillips 66 project said that heavier crude oil — not lighter crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota or Canada that was linked to the Lac-Mégantic disaster and was being carried by a CSX train when it derailed in West Virginia — would be type of crude oil that would be transported and can be processed at the refinery.
The commission heard from more than a dozen Phillips 66 employees who work at the Nipomo Mesa refinery or at the company’s other facilities in California, as well as union representatives and other businesses owners and individuals in support of the project.
Rachel Penny, a safety and health professional at the Nipomo Mesa refinery, said she chose to work in the oil and gas industry because “it’s vital to the economy.”
“In order for us to continue providing energy and improving lives, we need crude oil,” she said, noting that the refinery would not be increasing the amount of crude oil processed at the refinery with the project.
“It is the safest company that I’ve ever worked for,” said Jerry Harshbarger, who works in purchasing. “We still have a strong demand for fossil fuels and stopping this project will not stop that demand.”
Another San Luis Obispo resident said the products of gas and oil could be seen throughout the room, and he urged: “We as a community should work toward how to do this.”
“You drive a car and go up to the pump,” Laura Mordaunt said. “A truck is there filled with gas that is way more volatile. Your vehicle parked in your garage is far more dangerous than this process and yet you continue to drive.”
But another local resident, Gary Lester of the opponent organization Mesa Refinery Watch Group, said Nipomo residents moved there knowing the refinery existed and are not calling for it to be closed.
“We respect you as individuals and the work you do,” he said. “We are objecting to the construction of a loud, dangerous, invasive rail terminal just 3,000 feet from our homes.”
Phillips 66 officials have said that California crude oil production is declining and the company is looking for alternate sources outside the state. According to the company’s website, “The proposed change will help the refinery, and the approximately 200 permanent jobs it provides, remain viable under increasingly challenging business conditions.”
An attorney for Phillips 66 said during a previous hearing 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.
An average of about 6,800 barrels a day of crude oil is already being delivered by truck from the Paloma rail unloading facility near Bakersfield to a pump station east of Santa Maria, where it is moved by pipeline to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. That could increase to 26,000 barrels a day, according to the environmental document, adding about 100 truck trips a day traveling to the pump station for unloading.
If the rail project does not move forward, it’s likely that additional out-of-state crude oil would be brought to various rail unloading terminals in California and transferred to trucks to deliver to the Santa Maria pump station, according to the environmental report.
If this happened, some impacts would be shifted to the area in and around Santa Maria: trucking would generate higher levels of air emissions, resulting in significant cancer risk to the residences in close proximity to the roads; traffic congestion impacts; and potentially significant impacts to biological and water resources from an oil spill because of a truck accident.