Reprint from The Santa Maria Sun
Train of thought: Citizens worry oil tankers traveling through Guadalupe to the Phillips 66 refinery could explodeBy David Minsky, April 1, 2015
Residents worried that their town could become the scene of an oil tanker explosion voiced their concerns during a March 24 Guadalupe City Council meeting.
The Santa Maria Refinery property sits on the Nipomo Mesa, less than 5 miles away from Guadalupe, and that’s where owner Phillips 66 wants to build a rail spur to connect it to an existing Union Pacific Railroad line. Plans for a transfer station are in the works, too.
The project would change where the refinery gets oil and how the resource is delivered to the refinery, which currently receives most of its oil via pipeline from Northern Santa Barbara County. The rail spur could bring up to five 80-car trains per week carrying crude oil through downtown Guadalupe on the Union Pacific line. Union Pacific Railroad would be responsible for delivering the railcars, refinery spokesperson Jim Anderson said at the meeting.
On the table was whether or not the City Council would endorse a letter from 3rd District Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, who opposes the project. All sides—including representatives from Phillips 66, who encouraged the council to not take action on the letter in light of a yet-to-be completed environmental impact report; and the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which opposes the project—made their cases before a packed house of politicians, residents, and journalists. The letter was secondary to the discussion, though. The real question that was debated: Is it safe to allow railcars of crude oil to pass through Guadalupe?
Citing more than 60 years of safe rail operations, Anderson said the extension is necessary for the refinery to maintain its present rate of crude oil processing. With Central Coast oil production in decline and a strong demand for fuel—only one of the many products refined from crude—in California, Anderson said the spur is needed.
“The only way to fill up and complete that 44,000-barrel-a-day rate is, rather than propose a marine terminal or a truck terminal with thousands of trucks on the highway, we felt that a rail terminal, which is sitting right next to the mainline railroad tracks, would be the best alternative,” Anderson said, adding that the trains would be similar to the ones that have rolled through Guadalupe in the last 10 years, but would be slightly longer.
At one point while Anderson was speaking, an audible train horn blared in the distance, prompting chuckles among the crowd.
The idea of oil trains wasn’t so funny to Laurance Shinderman, who spoke on behalf of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, which formed to identify the negative impacts of the rail project. He noted the explosive potential of crude’s flashpoint—the temperature at which vapor forms and can ignite.
“The lower the flashpoint of the crude, the greater the risk,” Shinderman said, emphasizing that oil being shipped has a lower flashpoint. “I’m not a chemistry engineer, but I’ve done enough reading on this.”
He went on to cite several instances of tanker cars exploding or catching on fire, including the 2013 Lac-Megantic rail disaster in Quebec where multiple tankers carrying Bakken formation crude oil derailed and exploded, killing 47 people and destroying more than 30 buildings in a town roughly the size of Guadalupe.
Shinderman described the Phillips 66 proposal as “oil roulette.”
More people spoke against the spur after Shinderman, including Joyce Howerton, an aide who spoke on behalf of state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). Amy Anderson, a Santa Maria resident and volunteer for the Santa Barbara County Action Network, briefly talked about empty oil tankers.
“An empty liquid petroleum gas tanker is actually even more explosive than a full one,” she said. “Once they start to explode, you can only hope the town’s been evacuated and there are no onlookers because the fragments from the exploding tankers will assault Guadalupe like shrapnel from a roadside bomb. That’s not an exaggeration.”
Neither minimizing nor enhancing the risk of danger, Guadalupe Police Chief Gary Hoving said his biggest concern is a lack of emergency resources to evacuate the city in the event of a tanker explosion. Citing a FEMA estimate, Hoving said a blast zone with shrapnel would be limited to about 1 1/4 miles. He recommended an evacuation zone of at least 7,000 feet.
“A derailment in the city of Guadalupe would necessitate an evacuation of the entire city,” Hoving said during the meeting. “The major concerns that I have are related solely to public safety … our lack of sufficient fire and police, especially for an initial response.”
The last train derailment in Guadalupe was in 2007, when several cars came off the track, including four that spilled cases of Corona beer.
Hoving also asked where the funding for additional resources would come from.
Phillips 66 spokesperson Anderson noted that his company is presently working with the governor’s office to place a fee on each barrel of oil that’s loaded and unloaded. The money collected would go into a state-level emergency services fund and provide money for increasing the capability of emergency response, he said.
The fate of the spur is still up in the air. At the end of the debate that Tuesday night, the city eventually voted 4-1 to not to take any action on endorsing Farr’s letter. Councilmember Ariston Julian dissented. Before the vote, Julian made a motion to endorse the letter, but it wasn’t seconded.
Julian expressed concern for the city’s water source and residents living immediately near the tracks—including the soon-to-be-built Pasadera housing development that broke ground on March 4—if an accident caused oil to spill or explode.
“In the unlikelihood that there is, we have a potential of losing people and also losing our water source,” Julian said.