After a fifth daylong hearing, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission did not come to a decision on a controversial proposed rail spur project at the Phillips 66 Nipomo Mesa refinery and scheduled a sixth and possibly final hearing for May 16.
During Friday’s hearing, the commission considered a wide range of issues associated with the project, including air quality, bridge safety, hazards, emergency response and the composition of the oil to be shipped. One of the greatest fears regarding the proposed rail spur at the Phillips 66 oil refinery is that one of the long trains supplying the refinery could derail in a fiery crash.
“What is a rail car going to do if it turns over on the (Cuesta) Grade,” asked Commissioner Jim Irving. “Is it going to blow up?”
Jim Anderson, refinery manager, said the company will use the latest, most up-to-date tankers to transport the oil according to the Department of Transportation requirements to prevent that from happening. He also said the type of crude oil the tankers will be hauling is the heavier, less flammable kind.
“These cars are the state-of-the-art according to the DOT,” he said. “We will not start this project without those cars.”
John Peirson, a consultant with Marine Research Specialists of Ventura, which prepared the project’s environmental impact report, said even with the heavier crude oil, crashes have resulted in explosions and fireballs. He also said a thinner would be added to make the oil easier to pump and transport, and that this would increase its flammability.
“It is less likely, but it is possible,” he said.
For oil train accidents, the evacuation zone along the railroad is half a mile on either side. In San Luis Obispo County, 88,377 people live within half a mile of the tracks, said Ryan Hostetter, senior county planner.
The evacuation zone is the area adjacent to the tracks in which a person is liable to be injured in the event of a fire and explosion. Of greatest risk are densely populated areas and public facilities such as schools and hospitals. For example, Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo is near the railroad.
“These are areas where you would expect very severe consequences,” said Steve Radis, another MRS consultant. “Potentially, if you were outdoors, you could be injured, and evacuating a hospital would be a major disruption.”
The amount of crude oil transported by rail has increased 50 times since 2009. Since that time, three accidents a year involving oil cars have occurred nationally, none locally, Radis said.
In October 2015, Cal Fire conducted a simulated oil car derailment accident drill at the California Men’s Colony prison that involved 100 people. The simulation included multiple fires, creek pollution and inmate injuries, Battalion Chief Laurie Donnelly said.
It took several hours to put the oil fires out, but the most time-consuming part of the drill was treating the injured inmates.
“We did well, but we found a few areas of improvement, which is to be expected in a drill like that,” she said.
More than 50 people were in attendance Friday at the commission’s fifth hearing on the project.
Public turnout at Friday’s hearing was light compared with past hearings, which attracted hundreds of people. The light turnout was attributable to the fact that no public comment was taken.
The oil company has applied to build a 1.3-mile rail spur with five parallel tracks from the main rail line to its Nipomo Mesa refinery, an unloading facility at the refinery and on-site pipelines.
These improvements would allow the refinery to accept 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 rail cars carrying a total of 2.2 million gallons of crude oil.
County staff is recommending the proposal be denied. The project drew more than 400 speakers at previous hearings as well as thousands of letters and comments sent from around the state.
Opponents say the project will cause air pollution and other environmental consequences. They are also concerned about a derailment causing an oil spill and fire.
In order to reduce these environmental impacts, Phillips 66 has offered to reduce the shipments to three trains a week, or 150 per year.
Supporters say the project is needed to keep the refinery economically viable and protect its 200 jobs. They also point out that the refinery has operated safely and the state needs the oil products it will produce.
Whatever decision the Planning Commission makes will certainly be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors.