SLO board chambers packed for Phillips 66 rail spur appeal hearing

This article ran in the Santa Maria Times on March 14, 2017:

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers once again were filled with opponents of a controversial proposal by Phillips 66 to bring crude oil to its Nipomo Mesa refinery via trains.

About a 160 people turned out Monday in San Luis Obispo for the first day of an appeal hearing of the county Planning Commission's denial late last year of the proposed project. Half of those spoke during the daylong meeting.

Phillips 66 has applied for a development plan and coastal development permit to modify its existing rail spur at the refinery and install rail unloading facilities at the refinery in order to bring in unrefined heavy crude oil there via train.

Project plans also call for extending the facility's existing rail spur, and constructing five parallel tracks and a rack area to allow unloading up to three oil trains per week, not to exceed 150 a year.

Trains would consist of 80 rail cars carrying approximately 27,300 gallons each, totaling approximately 2.19 million gallons of crude oil. 

The Planning Commission turned down the proposal in a split vote last October after eight public hearings and hours of public testimony. Most speakers voiced opposition to the plans.

Those voices, which came from far and wide, didn't change during Monday's public comment portion of the appeal hearing, which will continue at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the County Government Center, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.

"This is the first time in 15 years we have ever spoken outside Santa Barbara County," said Ken Hough, Santa Barbara County Action Network executive director. "We never had the need to ... until now."

Hough told the four supervisors — Chairman John Peschong recused himself from the hearing because of his consulting background with the oil industry — his organization stands with Santa Barbara County in its opposition to the proposed rail spur project.

The Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors penned a letter last week to San Luis Obispo County elected officials urging them to uphold their Planning Commission's decision and deny the appeal, and reiterating the county's opposition to the proposed project.

Phillips 66 has argued the rail spur is necessary for the company to support plant operations because it doesn't own local crude oil production fields and must transport crude to the facility. Crude oil now is piped to the Phillips 66 facility that's located on the Nipomo Mesa, as well as trucked in to the plant. 

"I'm here to tell about a project that's crucial to the viability of the refinery," said Jim Anderson, Phillips 66 maintenance superintendent, noting that since the shutdown of the Plains All American pipeline, which spilled near Refugio State Beach in 2015, production at the refinery has been reduced by 50 percent.

He added, "Oil trains have been going through this county for two decades without a problem."

From the onset, county planning staff have recommended denial of the project based on several factors, including its incompatibility with a number of county plans, risks to public health and safety and numerous Class 1 unavoidable environmental impacts that can’t be mitigated.

Much of the public opposition to the proposed project centers on fears the oil trains could derail, causing fiery explosions and damaging the environment while also jeopardizing public health and safety.

However, not everyone is against the proposal, like Cambria's Gary Kirkland, who finds it ironic the same people who are against the project likely all drove vehicles to the hearing, especially those not from the area.

"Anyone who uses oil should be in favor of this project regardless of what their words are," Kirkland said. "This is just a rail spur. That is all it is."

Oil train opponents gathered at noontime outside the courthouse across the street from the government center for a "SLO Clean Energy Crossroads Rally," which featured a human train and chants of, "Hey, Phillips, what do we know?" "No, trains in S-L-O."

April Charlton covers Santa Barbara County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn