Russian roulette is a dangerous game of chance. A bullet is placed into a revolver, and the chamber is revolved. You’ve got a one in six chance that when you pull the trigger a bullet will come out. Be careful where you point that thing!
Allowing oil trains to pass through a community is like playing a game of Russian roulette. Granted, your chances are exponentially better than 1 in 6, but if a disaster were to happen, it would not be just you who gets hurt.
Right now, Phillips 66 (an oil refining company that recently spun off from ConocoPhillips) would like to be allowed to expand its refinery in Nipomo so that it can process shipments of crude oil delivered by trains. The tar sands crude is thick and shipped as “diluted bitumen” — in other words, with chemicals added to make it more fluid and easier to transport. A highly flammable byproduct even remains in the tank cars after they’ve been emptied.
Nipomo is in San Luis Obispo County, so our local officials can do little about this. But they can do something! They can join officials up and down the train route and pass a resolution, or send a letter, in opposition. This has been done by Ventura County, and the cities of Oxnard, Moorpark, Camarillo, Simi Valley, San Jose, Oakland, Sacramento, and many others.
This refinery may be in a neighboring county, but this is a big deal for Santa Barbara. Trains will be allowed to arrive at this refinery on the coast from either the north or the south. If this project is approved, oil trains will be passing through Santa Barbara County.
The proposal from Phillips 66 would allow 260 mile-and-a-half-long trains to offload crude oil at the Nipomo refinery every year. This translates to 520 trips up and down the California coast by crude-carrying trains that will shut down intersections, blare their horns, rumble through our communities, and spew gaseous contamination into the air. The inconvenience, air deficits, and upset are nothing compared to the real threats the loads pose to the health of our communities.
The Phillips 66 tanker fleet is composed entirely of model DOT-111 tanker cars. In July 2014, the US Department of Transportation decided that DOT-111s are extremely failure prone and outmoded; the newer, thicker-walled DOT-117 is recommended. Unfortunately, even the train-car builders warn no amount of extra metal or engineering can protect against breakage during a high-speed derailment.
The reality of oil train derailments is horrifying. With the jump in crude produced by fracking, the shipment of crude oil by rail has also jumped by thousands of percent. Unsurprisingly, the number of oil train derailments has also accelerated rapidly. So much so that in 2014, more crude oil was spilled in the U.S. from train derailments than in any year since data has been collected.
In just the past week there have been two major oil train accidents in North America. A train derailed in Ontario, Canada — pretty much directly north of Ohio — the night of February 14. Several tank cars caught fire, and the remote location made it difficult for emergency teams to arrive.
Two days later, midday on February 16, another train pulling DOT-111 cars derailed, exploded, and leaked oil into the Kanawha River amid a snowstorm in West Virginia. At the time of this writing, roughly 15 tanker cars were still burning, hundreds of families have been evacuated from their homes, and two water treatment plants downriver from the spill have been shut down.
The question you have to ask the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors is this: If an oil train explosion is not currently a serious possibility in our part of North America, why would we do something to change that?