Phillips 66 seeks six-month delay in rail spur hearing
By Chris McGuinness, August 18, 2016
The oil company proposing one of SLO County’s most controversial projects is asking the SLO County Planning Commission to wait six months before taking up the issue again.
After months of lengthy hearings, Phillips 66 requested that a planned commission meeting on its proposed rail spur extension project scheduled for Sept. 22 be pushed back until March 2017.
The move comes as the company waits for a decision by federal regulators on another controversial proposal also involving oil-carrying trains in the Northern California city of Benicia.
Hearings for Phillips 66’s project, which would allow the company to bring in crude oil by train to its Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, began in February. In a July 10 letter to county planning staff, the company said it wanted to wait until the Federal Surface Transportation Board ruled on a petition involving an oil train-related project in Benicia. The company in charge of that project, Valero, is seeking declaratory relief from the three-person federal board after the oil company’s proposal to transport 50 trains per-day carrying crude oil through the city was denied by the Benicia Planning Commission and appealed to its City Council.
At the heart of the Benicia case is the issue of pre-emption, or the extent of a local government’s authority over interstate rail transportation, which is the purview of federal government.
The same issue is at play in SLO. The hearings on the Phillips 66 project featured discussions over the county’s ability to set limits or conditions on the project.
“In the interest of efficiency of the commission as well as the planning staff, we believe it would be prudent to further continue the hearing on Phillips 66’s Rail Spur Extension Project until March 2017, so that all parties can benefit from the direction expected from the Surface Transportation Board,” the letter from Phillips read.
Andres Soto is a member of Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, an organization of residents who oppose Valero’s proposed project. Soto told New Times he was concerned that the impact of a decision that favored Valero would have far-reaching consequences.
“It would gut local land-use authority across the country,” he said.
Whether Phillips 66 gets the delay will be up to the SLO County Planning Commission. The commission will take up the request at the Sept. 22 meeting.
Phillips 66 oil-by-rail hearing continues next month
By Cynthia Lambert, February 25, 2016 11:11am
• After a third all-day hearing, the county Planning Commission will revisit the issue March 11
• Hundreds of speakers have praised or panned the plan to bring crude oil by rail to the Nipomo Mesa refinery
• Supporters stress the refinery’s safety record and jobs; opponents cite environmental worries
After a third all-day hearing with more than 100 speakers decrying or praising a plan by Phillips 66 Co. to upgrade its Nipomo refinery to receive crude oil by train, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission said Thursday that no decision will be made on the project until March 11 — or even later.
The dozens of speakers Thursday were fairly evenly split on either side of the debate, with supporters stressing the need to maintain about 200 “head-of-household” jobs at the refinery, as well as its long track record of safety and that it’s been a good neighbor in the community.
“The actual crude production in California is going down, not going up,” said Richard Black, a training administrator at Phillips 66’s Rodeo refinery in the east San Francisco Bay Area. “We have to make up the difference from somewhere.”
Opponents, meanwhile, said commissioners should not take into account the company’s safety record or personal relationships. Residents and elected officials from communities along the main rail line from San Francisco to Los Angeles have told commissioners they fear a catastrophic train derailment.
“Their plan is an irreversible disaster,” Nipomo resident Nora Lee said. “The effects will be felt instantly with poisonous air pollution.”
The company has applied to San Luis Obispo County to build a 1.3-mile spur with five parallel tracks from the main rail line to the Nipomo Mesa refinery, an unloading facility at the refinery and on-site pipelines.
The public has another chance to speak March 11 — county planning staff believe they’re nearing the end of public comments — and then the commissioners can ask questions, deliberate and even make a decision, or continue the process once again to a future date.
Whatever decision they make is expected to be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors, and a new round of hearings would be held.
The first two days of the Planning Commission hearing, held Feb. 4 and 5, drew hundreds of people to San Luis Obispo from around the state, with many urging the commissioners to reject the project. Planning staff has recommended denial of the project, which as proposed would allow five trains a week, for a maximum of 250 trains per year to deliver crude oil to the refinery.
Each train would have three locomotives, two buffer cars and 80 railcars carrying a total of about 2.2 million gallons of crude oil, according to county planners.
During a previous hearing day, representatives from Phillips 66 urged the commissioners to approve an alternate plan to allow three trains a week instead of five, or a maximum of 150 trains a year.
The county staff report states that three trains a week — or 150 a year — would reduce the significant toxic air emissions to no longer be considered a “Class 1 significant impact” at the refinery, which refers to the highest level of negative impacts referenced in the project’s final environmental impact report.
But emissions of diesel particulate matter would still remain a “Class 1” impact on-site, according to the staff report, and there would still be 10 “Class 1” impacts along the main rail line, such as impacts to air quality, water resources, potential demands on emergency response services and an increased risk to the public in the event of a derailment.
A few residents brought some audio-visuals along: One person showed a news clip of coverage of a massive train derailment in West Virginia last year; another played an audio recording of what he said a “typical crude oil terminal” sounds like, with train wheels squealing along tracks.
“Once an oil train derails and catches fire, you and your town will never fully recover,” she said. “Lac-Mégantic was a peaceful and beautiful community, just like San Luis Obispo.”
In response, supporters of the Phillips 66 project said that heavier crude oil — not lighter crude oil from the Bakken field in North Dakota or Canada that was linked to the Lac-Mégantic disaster and was being carried by a CSX train when it derailed in West Virginia — would be type of crude oil that would be transported and can be processed at the refinery.
The commission heard from more than a dozen Phillips 66 employees who work at the Nipomo Mesa refinery or at the company’s other facilities in California, as well as union representatives and other businesses owners and individuals in support of the project.
Rachel Penny, a safety and health professional at the Nipomo Mesa refinery, said she chose to work in the oil and gas industry because “it’s vital to the economy.”
“In order for us to continue providing energy and improving lives, we need crude oil,” she said, noting that the refinery would not be increasing the amount of crude oil processed at the refinery with the project.
“It is the safest company that I’ve ever worked for,” said Jerry Harshbarger, who works in purchasing. “We still have a strong demand for fossil fuels and stopping this project will not stop that demand.”
Another San Luis Obispo resident said the products of gas and oil could be seen throughout the room, and he urged: “We as a community should work toward how to do this.”
“You drive a car and go up to the pump,” Laura Mordaunt said. “A truck is there filled with gas that is way more volatile. Your vehicle parked in your garage is far more dangerous than this process and yet you continue to drive.”
But another local resident, Gary Lester of the opponent organization Mesa Refinery Watch Group, said Nipomo residents moved there knowing the refinery existed and are not calling for it to be closed.
“We respect you as individuals and the work you do,” he said. “We are objecting to the construction of a loud, dangerous, invasive rail terminal just 3,000 feet from our homes.”
Phillips 66 officials have said that California crude oil production is declining and the company is looking for alternate sources outside the state. According to the company’s website, “The proposed change will help the refinery, and the approximately 200 permanent jobs it provides, remain viable under increasingly challenging business conditions.”
An attorney for Phillips 66 said during a previous hearing that crude oil would still come into California by rail should the project be denied — a point that is included in the “no project” alternative as laid out in the project’s environmental impact report, Phillips 66 officials said.
An average of about 6,800 barrels a day of crude oil is already being delivered by truck from the Paloma rail unloading facility near Bakersfield to a pump station east of Santa Maria, where it is moved by pipeline to the Nipomo Mesa refinery. That could increase to 26,000 barrels a day, according to the environmental document, adding about 100 truck trips a day traveling to the pump station for unloading.
If the rail project does not move forward, it’s likely that additional out-of-state crude oil would be brought to various rail unloading terminals in California and transferred to trucks to deliver to the Santa Maria pump station, according to the environmental report.
If this happened, some impacts would be shifted to the area in and around Santa Maria: trucking would generate higher levels of air emissions, resulting in significant cancer risk to the residences in close proximity to the roads; traffic congestion impacts; and potentially significant impacts to biological and water resources from an oil spill because of a truck accident.
Northridge neighbors fight a second railroad track
By Dana Bartholomew, 11/18/15, 8:12 PM PST
NORTHRIDGE >> When dozens of freight and passenger trains whoosh each day past homes in Northridge, curtains are sucked through open windows and nail heads sometimes lifted from floors, residents say.
And that happens from just one railroad track.
Now residents along the San Fernando Valley railroad are rattled by plans for a second track running from Van Nuys to Chatsworth. They say the double track would move the trains much closer to their backyards, diminishing property values while increasing noise, vibration and the chance of a dangerous derailment or toxic spill.
“There’s already a good chance of derailment, because of cars running through our cul de sac,” Briana Guardino, 47, of Northridge, whose home on White Oak Avenue abuts the railroad right of way and lies 60 feet from the track, said during a recent streetside protest. “If they put a new track in here, my family’s dead. If a train tips over, it’s coming straight into our bedroom.”
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has long planned to lay a second track across the northwest San Fernando Valley rail corridor. But momentum on the project, which had been scheduled to break ground next year, was slowed when newly appointed Metro CEO Phillip Washington said he would seek more community input and the results of a noise and vibration study requested by residents.
The Raymer to Bernson Double Track Project, formally proposed in 2011, would add 6.4 miles of new rails between Woodley and De Soto avenues, allowing Metrolink, Amtrak and Union Pacific trains to share a continuous rail corridor across Los Angeles County and beyond.
The $104 million project, to be paid for by voter-approved Measure R and Proposition 1B transit funds, would include upgrades to traffic controls, grade crossings and roads and bridges along the rail route, while rebuilding the Northridge Metrolink Station to serve an expected boost in passengers.
By adding a second track, Metro officials say, freight and passenger trains that now sit with their engines idling waiting for trains to pass would operate more efficiently, creating less smog. They say a double track would also promote rail safety, reliability and on-time performance.
“We would never do anything that was not safe, that we know to be unsafe,” said Paul Gonzales, a spokesman for Metro. “Nothing will be approved, built or operated unless we’re satisfied that it’s safe.”
This summer, however, residents of Sherwood Forest caught wind of the double-track plan they say double-crossed the thousands who live along the route by speeding ahead without community input or any state or federal environmental impact reviews.
Instead, transit officials had won a federal “categorical exclusion,” or environmental study workaround, by claiming “the public has been informed of the project and is in complete support.”
While public officials and some neighborhood councils were brought up to date, residents living by the railroad tracks were not, they say. So meetings with Metro were called over the summer, with hundreds turning out in opposition. A Citizens Against Double Track Steering Committee coalition was formed.
More than 1,000 residents have signed a petition to spike the project.
A protest by the Northridge track last week drew nearly 20 red-clad residents who brandished signs from “Too close to homes = unsafe” to “Destroy property values.” They said the number of trains has grown from up to eight each day 30 years ago to up to three dozen, with more capacity expected with a double track. Three trains, including a 95-car freight, passed within an hour during the protest.
“Very simply: We all moved in knowing there was a train behind us,” said Stefan Mayer, 59, of Northridge, a contractor who now regularly checks his wood floor for raised nail heads. “What I do have a problem with is the possibility of more trains, more noise, more (danger) and the destruction of our property.”
Support for residents
Meanwhile, elected officials from Los Angeles to Washington have voiced support for residents’ opposition. In August, Councilman Mitch Englander called on Metro to explain its reasons for a new track, urging the agency to address local concerns about the environmental review process.
County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, a Metro board member whose district includes the proposed double track, has joined residents with questions about public safety.
“I have some concerns regarding double tracking in residential areas,” she said last week in a statement. “If Metro decides to move forward with (a) second phase, I will request a full environmental review.
“I am concerned that the issues the community has raised be addressed and that there be adequate mitigation.”
Congressman Brad Sherman has also weighed in, saying he shares the concerns of Kuehl and residents affected by trains passing more closely to their homes.
He said the federal National Environmental Policy Act requires a formal environmental review if the proposed rail project could result in a change in “noise sources” within homes, schools and parks. Metro is now conducting a preliminary noise study.
“Furthermore, I understand that Metro and Metrolink are considering a proposal which accomplishes the project goals of operational reliability and safety without double-tracking the one-mile stretch of the project which lies adjacent to homes,” Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that their efforts to find a solution to the concerns of the affected community prove successful.”
A Metro town hall meeting that was scheduled to take place today to answer more than a hundred questions from residents was pushed back to mid-December, a Metro spokesman said, or early January to accommodate for the holidays.
Gonzales, the Metro spokesman, admitted the agency had “fallen down on the job” on community outreach but would make it right.
“The decision will be made according to what’s right, for not only the local community, but the transportation system as a whole,” he said. “Their needs, desires will be taken into account.
“We have listened — and continue to listen — to people in that neighborhood, and are taking their issues into account.”
One known incident
Residents said the only known incident along the line was a derailment during the 1994 Northridge earthquake and that seismic safety precludes a second track.
They questioned the need for a second track when Metrolink ridership has dropped more than 9 percent since 2008 — from 45,443 daily boardings to 41,248, according to a recent study — with some passenger cars nearly empty.
They questioned a “track shift” they said would force trains to cross over from a new double track north of the current rails to new rails laid to the south, creating another hazard. But there will be no track switch, Metro officials say.
They also questioned the safety of moving rails closer to their homes that carry explosive crude oil trains. Two years ago, an oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, with a resulting explosion that killed 47 and burned 30 buildings. Last summer, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion urging a San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to block a proposed Phillips 66 refinery expansion that could send five 1.4-mile-long oil trains a week into Los Angeles through the San Fernando Valley.
If a crude-bearing train were to derail in the highly populated Valley, a blast ratio of 1,000 feet could kill 3,000 people, residents say.
“When they started this (double track), they essentially cheated our neighborhood out of an environmental impact report,” said Michael Rissi, co-chairman of the steering committee to fight a second track. “We want an EIR.
“But we really don’t want a double track. The single track has been here for 102 years without an accident, and we want it to stay that way.”