Like other residents of the city of San Luis Obispo, I am proud of our beautiful 165-year-old city, dubbed the “Happiest City in North America.” Residents may be happy about our city, but we are not happy about the risks proposed by the Phillips 66 rail spur expansion project.
Why? As we’ve all seen on the news, when trains carrying this oil derail, they don’t just spill — they explode, and burn for days. Those derailments and resulting hazardous air and soil contamination have increased as oil-by-rail transport has increased. The Phillips 66 project would result in five or more additional trains a week bearing highly volatile crude from far away oil fields, traveling through our communities to Nipomo, each train approximately a mile in length. Residents, to put it mildly, do not want these oil trains traveling through our city.
In response to concerned city residents , the San Luis Obispo City Council voted unanimously to write a letter to the county Board of Supervisors opposing this project and asking them to protect the safety, health and economic well-being of our city. The city of San Luis Obispo is honored to lead the way in our county and stand alongside a growing number of cities, counties and public agencies throughout the state, allied in opposition to this project.
The increased risk posed by this project is a major statewide issue and is a threat to every community with a railroad running through it. However, this project poses a uniquely extreme risk to the city of San Luis Obispo, made even more extreme by our unique topography.
Just to our north, in the open space immediately behind Cal Poly, is the mountainous Cuesta Grade area, which Union Pacific Railroad has rated as one of the state’s highest risk areas for derailments.
This unspoiled and beautiful part of our greenbelt, full of sensitive species and habitat, with the railroad tracks and Highway 101 snaking through it, is also rated by Cal Fire as being at extreme risk for wildfire. The current extreme drought has created a tinder-dry situation, and when under Santa Ana-downdraft conditions, our city is often downwind from Cuesta Grade.
Were there to be an oil car derailment in the Cuesta Grade or Cal Poly area, the campus — with its 20,000 students and 10,000 staff members — as well as the densely populated downtown and northern part of our city would be extremely difficult to defend from the ensuing oil fire.
However, that is not the only area of our city that would be threatened, because the railroad tracks go right through the heart of our city, putting most of our residents, visitors, businesses and structures at risk.
Our emergency responders are simply not funded, trained or equipped to deal with a disaster of the magnitude threatened by this project. If there were an oil disaster in our community, we taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for firefighting, hazardous material cleanup and repair of infrastructure. The damage to our lives, our environment and our economy would be devastating.
Like all businesses, Union Pacific and Phillips 66 desire to increase profits for their shareholders. But the problem is that these businesses wish to do so by vastly increasing our community’s risk of exposure to an oil-train disaster. Are we going to be forced to bear that risk? Is there no way to protect ourselves?
The answer to that question is up to the Board of Supervisors. As the permitting agency, the county Board of Supervisors is in a uniquely crucial position. It is the only entity in the county with the land use authority to deny the permits, which are needed for the project to proceed.
County residents have the opportunity to urge the Board of Supervisors to reject this project. They should do so for the sake of the health, safety and welfare of everyone who lives or works within the “oil car blast zone,” approximately a half-mile on each side of the railroad tracks.
The supervisors have the opportunity to put political differences aside and make the safety and wellbeing of their constituents their first priority by rejecting this project. Hopefully, they will rise to the challenge.
Safety, after all, is not a partisan issue.