Hundreds Urge Planning Commission to Deny Phillips 66's Dangerous Oil Train Proposal

On February 4th and 5th, hundreds of people from across California converged on downtown San Luis Obispo to urge county planning commissioners to reject Phillips 66's proposal to build an oil train terminal at its Santa Maria refinery. The oil giant seeks to transport tar sands crude from Canada in mile-long trains -- each laden with over two million gallons of dirty crude -- that would travel through hundreds of communities before arriving at the refinery on California's Central Coast.

By Thursday afternoon, nearly 400 people had signed up to speak at the Planning Commission hearing. The local paper reported that it was the largest turnout for a public hearing in years. The crowds were so large that the historic movie theater next door had to be used for overflow seating. People came not just from San Luis Obispo County but also from farther afield: Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Fresno, Santa Barbara, and other towns and cities that would be put at risk by oil trains rolling through their communities. Oil train derailments and explosions have skyrocketed in recent years. The most catastrophic accident occurred in Lac-Megantic, Canada in July 2013, when an oil train derailment caused a fiery explosion that killed 47 people and obliterated several city blocks.

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Hundreds gathered for a rally during the lunch break on the first day of the Planning Commission hearing (photo courtesy of Vanessa Tsimoyianis)

At the start of the hearing, Phillips 66 announced that it had downsized its proposal from 5 oil trains per week to three trains per week. Phillips conceded that this new proposal would have many of the same "significant and unavoidable impacts" to human health and the environment as the original proposal, particularly along the rail line. But the company espoused an opportunistic (and flimsy) argument that federal regulation of railroads means the commissioners can only consider impacts at the refinery site -- not the risks posed to hundreds of communities that the unsafe oil trains would rumble through on their way from Canada to the Santa Maria refinery.

On the first day of the hearing, the Planning Commission heard from 83 members of the public. Every single speaker opposed the project.

The speakers included elected officials such as San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx, Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider, and staffers speaking on behalf of State Senators Bill Monning and Hannah-Beth Jackson, State Assemblymember Das Williams, and officials from nearby towns including Oxnard and Goleta. From the Bay Area, where oil trains would pass through on their way to the Phillips 66 refinery, staffers spoke against the project on behalf of elected officials from Santa Clara County, San Jose, and Berkeley.

A lunchtime rally further highlighted the overwhelming public opposition to Phillips 66's project. More than 500 people gathered in the plaza across the street from the hearing, many wearing t-shirts and waving signs bearing the message "Stop Oil Trains Now." As they alternated between listening to speakers and cheering, the rally participants lived up to the directive on one attendee's sign to "Stand Up to Big Oil." Among the rally speakers were Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider and Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal.

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Santa Barbara mayor Helene Schneider addresses the crowd at the rally.

This trend of overwhelming opposition to the project continued on the second day of the hearing. Although a handful of people spoke in support (primarily Phillips 66 employees), they were far outnumbered by people urging the Planning Commission to deny the project. This imbalance is nothing new. Of the approximately 24,500 comment letters received on the project during the environmental review process, only about 150 were in support. The county has also received dozens of comments from state and local governmental officials, counties, cities, schools and fire protection districts opposing the plan to transport crude by rail through their communities.

At the hearing, the citizens who urged the Planning Commission to deny the project included residents of San Luis Obispo and Nipomo Mesa (where the refinery is located), nurses and physicians, a retired firefighter, students and teachers, San Jose and Davis residents who would be affected by the oil trains rolling through their communities, a retired chemical engineering professor, a zookeeper, parents and grandparents (and even a great-grandparent), a retired CFO, and representatives of groups including the Sierra Club, ForestEthics, Center for Biological Diversity, Surfrider Foundation, Mesa Refinery Watch Group, Santa Barbara Channelkeepers, the League of Women Voters, and the California Nurses Association.

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Rally participants listen to a speaker, across the street from overflow seating in the Fremont Theater

Attorneys from the Sierra Club, Communities for a Better Environment, and Environmental Defense Center also spoke, addressing deficiencies in the final environmental impact report and the project's inconsistency with the Local Coastal Plan and General Plan, as well as refuting Phillips 66's argument that the preemption doctrine precludes the Commission from considering impacts on "up-rail" communities. (Notably, the company has also said it believes that preemption prevents the county from regulating rail terminals or unloading facilities -- which signals that if allowed to build the oil train terminal under the 3 train per week proposal, Phillips 66 would later argue that the county is prohibited from limiting the number of trains.)

At the hearing, many of the speakers urged the Planning Commission to follow the recommendation of its own staff, which recently issued a report recommending denial of the project. The staff report noted the significant local, regional, and statewide concern regarding toxic air emissions, risk of derailment and explosion, and inadequate emergency response services along the rail line. The staff report also pointed out that the environmental impact report for the project concluded that there would be "significant and unavoidable" impacts from diesel particulate matter and toxic air emissions at the refinery (including an unacceptable cancer risk for the population near the project), as well as ten "significant and unavoidable" impacts along the rail line (including impacts to agricultural resources, air quality, biological resources, cultural resources, hazards, public services, and water resources). The Sierra Club and our allies have played a critical role in the environmental review process for the project, helping to ensure that the project's impacts are thoroughly analyzed. We submitted comments on the draft environmental impact report in January 2014, which led the county to do another round of environmental review, which we also commented on. In addition, represented by Environmental Defense Center, we submitted comments highlighting the project's inconsistency with critical Local Coastal Program policies.

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Andrew Christie, Chapter Director of the Sierra Club's Santa Lucia Chapter, speaking to the Planning Commission.

As the second day of the hearing drew to a close, many people who had signed up to speak had not yet had a chance to do so. The Planning Commission continued the hearing to February 25 for additional public comment. Once the public comment process is complete, there will be a staff response, an opportunity for questions from the Commission (including questions for agencies such as Cal Fire), deliberations, and finally a Planning Commission decision. That decision can be appealed to the County Board of Supervisors, whose decision could then be appealed to the California Coastal Commission. Notably, on February 3, Coastal Commission staff sent a letter to the Planning Commission stating that it "strongly agree[s] with and support[s]" the planning staff's recommendation to deny the project.

The people have spoken, and their message to the Planning Commission is clear: put the public before oil industry profits, and deny this project. As the editorial board of the San Luis Obispo Tribune wrote in a recent editorial: "we cannot support a project that would increase rail shipments of crude oil through communities in San Luis Obispo County, or any other county. There are too many risks and too many unanswered questions." And as a Paso Robles High School student told the Planning Commission at the hearing: "oil trains are dinosaurs and dinosaurs belong in museums."

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Front page of the San Luis Obispo Tribune on February 5, 2016.