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North County residents meet to oppose oil train rail spur 

Tankers courtesy Mesa Refinery Watch Group–A group of concerned North County residents met earlier this month at Congregation Ohr Tzafon in Atascadero for a public forum about Phillip 66’s plans to run oil trains through California to its Mesa refinery in Nipomo. Phillips 66 has applied to the county for a permit to build a rail terminal to unload oil trains carrying tar sands oil crude from Alberta, Canada.

Federal laws prohibit state and local governments from passing laws and regulations that control trains passing through their jurisdictions, but the group believes that San Luis Obispo County is in a unique position because denying Phillips 66 the permit will not only prevent the oil trains from running through San Luis Obispo County, it can significantly reduce oil-train traffic in California.

Phillips 66 proposes to bring mile-long oil trains, each carrying 2.4 million gallons of low grade tar sands crude, through San Luis Obispo county five times a week for the next 20 years. Once refined at the mesa refinery, the oil will be transported by train to the San Francisco Bay area for further treatment, then exported to the highest bidder.

Phillips 66 says importing the lower qualilty crude is necessary because it is running out of California crude, putting jobs at the Nipomo Mesa refinery at risk. The Mesa Refinery Watch Group challenges the oil company, stating “Phillips’ corporate executives have stated in writing that they want their entire company to process lower-cost crude oil in order to generate higher profits.” A statement on the Mesa Refinery Watch Group’s web site says, “The issue is about higher profits by switching to rail delivery, not about protecting jobs.”

Beth Kean from the California Nurses Association, and Lee Perkins from ProtectSLO presented concerns that would impact San Luis Obispo county in the event of an oil train accident.

Kean and Perkins stated the danger of derailments and explosions are very real. More than 95,000 people in San Luis Obispo County live, work, or attend school within a one mile blast zone around the Union Pacific tracks that would be used by the oil trains, they said. Retired Templeton fire chief Greg O’Sullivan spoke from Sunday night’s audience stating that an oil train derailment and explosion would tax local first responder resources and could result in hundreds of deaths in a populated area. O’Sullivan stated that the risk to public safety and environmental resources such as water, is just too high to be balanced by any claimed safety measures.

On October 7, 2015 the Los Angeles Times published a table showing 31 oil-train crashes between January 2013 and July 2015. Over half of thesewere credited to track issues. In an April 2015 press release announcing the Department of Transportation’s intent to improve transport safety the DOT reported the number of accidents involving trains carrying crude oil “is unprecedented.” “Operation Safe Delivery Update” a DOT report released in July 2014 reported the “potential devastating consequences of a crude oil train derailment.” Another DOT press release issued in May 2014, “Upon information derived from recent railroad accidents and subsequent DOT investigations, the Secretary of Transportation has found that an unsafe condition or an unsafe practice is causing or otherwise constitutes an imminent hazard to the safe transportation of hazardous materials.”

The DOT released derailment projections in an August 2014 issue of the Federal Register in which it presents a high end risk assessment for derailment of crude oil shipments at 5 to 15 events between 2015 and 2034. The assessment includes 10 additional events in the same time frame of “higher consequences.” These higher consequences total up to environmental damages, injuries and deaths costing between $1.15 and $5.75 billion for a single event.

A July 2013 oil train derailment in Lac-Megantic,Ontario, resulted in 47 deaths and clean-up costs were estimated at over $180 million. The railroad, Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway folded because it was only carrying $25 million in liability insurance, leaving Canadians responsible for financing the costs.

A draft of the Phillips 66 environmental impact report (EIR) is available for public view on the web site for the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department. The final EIR may be released in early 2016 and public hearings can start as soon as on month after that release. Opposition to oil trains is growing in San Luis Obispo county and across the state as well as in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation.

Kean and Perkins are making presentations at the San Miguel School Board meeting at 6:30 on Nov. 12, and to the Templeton School Board meeting at 6 p.m. on Dec. 10.

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.