Decision on Phillips 66 rail spur project could come Monday

Protesters rally against the Phillips 66 proposal outside the County Government Center in February.
Protesters rally against the Phillips 66 proposal outside the County Government Center in February. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A tentative decision by the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission on a highly controversial proposal to add a rail spur to the Phillips 66 Nipomo Mesa refinery could be made Monday — though it’s tentative because whatever decision that panel makes will be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

Monday’s hearing will be the commission’s sixth on the rail spur project. The hearing starts at 9 a.m., and the entire day has been dedicated to it. No public comment on the project will be taken.

“The commission will ask questions and hopefully go in one direction or another,” said Ryan Hostetter, project manager.

The commission will also finish discussions on the project’s health and air quality issues left over from the last hearing. Dr. Penny Borenstein, county health officer, will be available for this discussion.

The commission will have three options Monday:

▪  Follow county staff’s recommendation and deny the application. This would close the matter before the Planning Commission and a two-week appeal period to the Board of Supervisors would begin.

▪  Approve the project. This would require at least another hearing at a later date at which the commission would consider any new requirements or restrictions it wants to place on the project.

▪  Continue a final decision to a later date. No date has been set aside for a continuation.

The Phillips 66 rail spur project has sparked an intense controversy in the community. Previous hearings drew more than 400 speakers, and planners have received thousands of letters and comments.

The oil company has applied to install a 1.3-mile rail spur with five parallel tracks from the main rail line to its Nipomo Mesa refinery. This installation would allow the refinery to accept up to 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. Opponents of the project have a variety of concerns including air pollution, noise and other environmental consequences.

However, the main concern is that one of the trains could derail and cause an explosion and fiery crash. In the county, 88,337 people live within half a mile of the tracks, which is the evacuation zone in the event of a crash.

In order to reduce the environmental consequences of the project, 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 for nearly 60 years and the state needs the oil products it produces.

An appeal of the project would likely be heard later this year.