Tom Fulks

Rail project is a risky endeavor with countywide ramifications

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

Folks living near the train tracks running through San Luis Obispo County should be alarmed about the oil super-train depot proposed for the Nipomo Mesa.

People in every school, home, church and business within earshot of the train tracks are being asked to double the risk they face from oil super-trains every day. This project would double the amount of oil rolling through the county with vastly longer trains hauling far more volatile cargo — oil as dangerous as the Bakken crude that’s been exploding with alarming frequency across the nation.

Think a roof collapsing under shamrock-bedazzled Cal Poly drunks is big news? Imagine the carnage at those student housing complexes just steps from the tracks if an oil train explodes.

Proponents of the rail depot project cavalierly dismiss the safety risks, even though we have no way of knowing how much of this explosive cargo is in any one car at any given time.

Google “oil bomb trains” to judge for yourself.

The entire county is being asked to place its well-being on a blackjack table dripping with explosive Canadian tar sand crude. Why double down on such a risky bet?

To benefit one company — Phillips 66 — promising the payoff of a whopping 12 permanent jobs in exchange.

The environmental and safety risks of this project extend far beyond the Nipomo Mesa. The “blast zone” radius of an exploding oil car is 1 mile, according to ForestEthics.org  , which is compiling oil super-train derailment data nationwide.

If this is even partially true, it remains that residents of every city in SLO County are affected, except Morro Bay. The only local city to weigh in so far — to oppose the project — is the city of San Luis Obispo, the most heavily populated.

City councils and elected community boards throughout SLO County owe their residents a clear assessment of the direct safety risks this project poses. Public safety is a fundamental responsibility of all elected officials.

And they, like the city of San Luis Obispo, should clearly state their positions on the project to the county Planning Commission, which is expected to schedule a hearing soon.

The SLO City Council has done its duty. The others should do theirs. Even if a local elected body supports the super-train depot, it should publicly explain why the promise of 12 jobs overrides the added risk to its town’s safety.

We’re not Appalachia, which has suffered oil train explosions due to lax regulatory oversight. Our county has a solid record of holding Big Oil accountable. It’s time to defend that record now.

In 1986, SLO County voters adopted Measure A, which still requires voter approval of permits issued by the county for onshore projects supporting offshore oil and gas development. Environmentalists joined the SLO Chamber of Commerce and tourismrelated businesses to support Measure A, the last truly “bipartisan” coalition we’ve had.

Measure A was tested in 1988 by Shell Oil, which received permits for onshore pipelines and processing facilities — on the Nipomo Mesa — to support the offshore San Miguel Project. Voters soundly rejected the permits after one of the most costly campaigns in county history.

Today, we’re faced with a variation on the same theme. This time, the onshore support facilities would be railroads and a depot accommodating mega-trains carrying explosive crude through communities up and down the length of our county, including the notoriously treacherous Cuesta Grade.

The trains would traverse the county five times a week, doubling the existing crude oil traffic. The provably dangerous content of these super-trains poses a far greater safety and environmental risk than any offshore project ever did.

If this crude were coming from the sea, voters would have final authority. If county planning commissioners and eventually the Board of Supervisors deign to approve this mistake, the morally right thing to do would be to put it on the ballot.

Let Phillips 66 and its paid apostles try to convince a majority of county voters that twice as many oil bomb trains is good. As it stands now, all they need is three votes at the Planning Commission and three at the Board of Supervisors.

A ballot referendum would keep faith with the intent of the 1986 Measure A, which has withstood legal challenges up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Despite the rhetoric of its selectively blind supporters, the refinery won’t be shut down if this project doesn’t go through. Business will continue and no one will lose a job because of it.

This project isn’t about the greater good. It’s about the singular benefit to one multinational oil corporation at a cost of the safety of the entire population living along the rail line, representing the shank of SLO County’s population.

The risk simply isn’t worth it. It’s a sucker’s bet.

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