San Luis Obispo County residents fighting plans for a controversial oil-by-rail project got some out-of-state reinforcements Saturday.
More than 150 activists gathered for an afternoon rally at Mitchell Park in downtown San Luis Obispo to protest a proposed Phillips 66 rail spur that would add five tracks and allow crude oil to be hauled to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. Three trains per week would deliver 2.2 million gallons of oil using the 1.3-mile spur connecting the refinery to the main rail line.
The refinery now receives crude oil by pipeline. Phillips 66 says it needs the spur to bring in more oil and continue to support the 200 employees who staff the refinery. Those who oppose the project cite safety concerns, particularly the dangers of train derailments that cause oil tank cars to spill crude and erupt into fiery explosions.
The county Planning Commission is scheduled to vote on Phillips 66’s proposal in September, after it held five full days of hearings earlier this year that drew hundreds of opponents and proponents from across the state.
The Saturday rally commemorated the three-year anniversary of one such derailment: On July 5, 2013, a stopped train hauling 72 crude oil tank cars near Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, rolled downhill and derailed near the center of town. Forty-seven people were killed in ensuing explosions and fires.
Mayor Arlene Burns of Mosier, Oregon, spoke at Saturday’s rally about a fiery oil train derailment near her town in June and urged San Luis Obispo County residents to stop the spur project. Attendees then marched to the nearby Amtrak station, many waving yellow “Stop Oil Trains Now” signs.
“Everywhere along these tracks, people are in danger,” Burns said.
The June 3 incident in the Columbia River Gorge near Mosier was caused by broken track bolts that derailed a train hauling more than 90 tank cars of crude oil. Some of the cars leaked oil and caught on fire, prompting Mosier, a tiny town of about 430, to evacuate its schools and many residents.
Burns said the fire took 15 days to put out and stretched the small community’s resources almost to the limit. Even residents who weren’t required to evacuate went without water for a short period of time because of potential oil contamination, she said.
“Our town is now known as the town where the train derailment happened,” Burns said.
Trains derail. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, Oregon, who spoke at Saturday’s rally in San Luis Obispo
After the incident, officials said the situation would’ve been much more dire if the derailment had occurred just miles in either direction, closer to homes or businesses.
Union Pacific continues to haul oil tanks through the area, even after the derailment and despite residents’ and officials’ concerns, Burns said.
“Trains derail,” she said. “It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”
Charles Varni of the SLO Surfrider Foundation said the rally was a good chance to “remobilize” the movement against the rail spur as they wait for the project to again go before the county Planning Commission on Sept. 22. When the proposal went before commissioners in May, they voted 3-2 against denying the project.
The commission continued the issue until September so that it could consider specific terms of approval for the project, including a requirement that it be limited to three trains a week, or 150 trains a year. Phillips 66 had originally proposed five trains per week but scaled that back to three trains per week in the face of widespread opposition.
Salud Carbajal, a Santa Barbara County supervisor and Democratic candidate for the 24th District congressional seat, introduced Burns and spoke against the “fallacy” of the commissioners’ vote.
“I am here with you in solidarity with you,” Carbajal said. “This project has to be stopped.”
Kay Gore, a rally attendee from Arroyo Grande, said she’s also gone to Planning Commission and City Council meetings where the rail spur was discussed. She decried the commissioners’ last vote and said she thought the project would give Phillips 66 more profit while nearby residents absorbed potential risks.
“I cannot understand how elected officials ... can go ahead and be so blind,” Gore said.