A bus of Santa Barbara environmentalists and attorneys traveled to San Luis Obispo on Thursday to oppose the controversial Phillips 66 rail spur project. For two days, they joined hundreds of activists who packed SLO’s government center, spilling into overflow rooms, and staged protests out front.

Wearing “Stop Oil Trains Now” t-shirts and buttons, protesters from all over the state urged the San Luis Obispo planning commission to uphold its staff’s recommendations and deny the project — a modification to the existing rail spur at the Nipomo refinery to allow for the unloading of crude oil.

Ridge Hammond of San Luis Obispo holds a sign during the hearing

The project — affecting 47 acres in and around the Santa Maria Refinery — was originally proposed in summer 2013 and has since gone through exhaustive environmental review. Public interest in the project is so great that planning commission chair Don Campbell decided to hold a third hearing date for continued public testimony and staff presentations on February 25. (The commission is expected to continue the meeting on March 11.) So far, nearly 25,000 written comments have been submitted. Of those, just 150 support the project.

Activists hold signs in protest against the Phillips 66 rail spur project during the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission meeting

Two days before the hearing started, Phillip 66 attorneys proposed to reduce the number of trains unloaded per week from five to three (or 250 trains per year to 150). This alternative would decrease the toxic air emissions impact by lowering the cancer risk to just below SLO’s Air Pollution Control District’s threshold, according to county staff. Other environmental impacts, however, remain a concern.

Phillips 66 attorneys argued federal regulators — the Federal Railroad Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) — oversee “robust enforcement” of laws pertaining to a host of locomotive issues. Phillips also contended the oil is heavy crude, not light crude associated with past high-profile accidents.

Attendees at the Fremont Theater for the meeting on the Phillips 66 rail spur project

But attorneys with the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) — who received a grant from the Fund for Santa Barbara to fight the project — tore apart the project piece by piece. “Attorneys and scientists have analyzed this project and in each case our conclusions were the same. The project must be denied,” Owen Bailey, EDC’s executive director, said. “Communities across the nation experience risks from crude by rail. We have an opportunity to say no.”

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commissioners

SLO county planners found the project’s economic and other benefits do not outweigh its Class I environmental impacts. Further, they found, the project is inconsistent with land use ordinances and coastal plan policies, and the Final Environmental Impact Review found impacts to air quality, biological resources, and water resources, among others.

In the minority, a number of automotive industry workers supported the project. “I see a lot of people here who are retired or maybe living at home,” one speaker said.

Mike Brown, former Santa Barbara County CEO and current COLAB representative, said the public resources code provides a reason for the commission to approve a project even if there are large, unmitigated problems. “Stop focusing on the narrow issues presented here and look at the big picture,” he said. “We all have a responsibility to support industry processes to support our standard of living.”

Public commenters sign in for the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission hearing
Phil Klein, Contributor

Many activists spoke about the hazards to areas one mile on either side of the railroad. “The reality is Phillips is trying to make all of SLO a hub for crude oil,” one critic charged. Another activist, working a booth outside, said he was from Richmond. But, “I live in the blast zone,” he said.


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