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Planning Commission rejects Phillips 66 rail spur project

Posted: Friday, Oct 14th, 2016

SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY — The San Luis Obispo Planning Commission voted 3-2 to deny the Santa Maria Oil Refinery (SMR) rail spur extension project Oct. 5 in its final hearing.

Phillips 66, owner of SMR, has a two-week window to file an appeal that will end Oct. 19 at 5 p.m. If an

appeal is filed, the next step will be a San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors hearing, which was not scheduled as of press time Thursday.

The next scheduled meeting of the Board of Supervisors is Tuesday, Oct. 18, just one day before the deadline to appeal lapses, and the published meeting agenda does not mention a hearing to appeal the ruling made by the Planning Commission.

Dennis Nuss, director of media and external relations for Phillips 66, said, “Regarding last week’s decision by the SLO Planning Commission, Phillips 66 presented a strong proposal, and we will review the concerns raised and consider our options, including the right to appeal.”

The Coastal Development Permit to construct the extension to the existing rail spur on SMR property

was denied, as was recommended by County Planning staff and project manager Ryan Hostetter after the first review of the project in November 2014. At the hearing Oct. 5, new California Environmental Quality Act findings were presented along with clear findings and conditions for approval of the project that were revised since the last planning hearing.

“We worked on revisions with county legal council to revise the language of the findings and conditions for approval,” Hostetter said. “There will be up to three locomotives and 80 railcars as discussed last hearing. … This will not affect the permuted capacity of the project. Trains could come from both north and south. Crude oil will be transported in DOT railcars.”

She continued, “The road will be improved going in and out of the refinery. Decommissioning the rail spur will require further permuting and environmental review. Bonding was also added to the document with the advice of county council that we will review further.”

Commissioners Jim Irving (District 1), Ken Topping (District 2), Eric Meyer (District 3), Jim Harrison (District 4) and Don Campbell (District 5) presided over the hearing and spent nearly five hours in the

review process.

The SMR project includes a 6,915-foot-long rail spur, an unloading facility, onsite pipelines, replacement of rail loading tracks, the construction of five parallel tracks with the capacity to hold a 5,190-footlong unit train consisting of 80 tank cars, two buffer cars and three locomotives, as well as some accessory improvements. This was downgraded from the original project that outlined a five railcar option. As part of mitigations for approval, SMR dropped two trains.

The same issues were discussed at length regarding everything from lighting and air quality to affect on surrounding municipalities and the dangers of derailment. Topping expressed that the two major issues he saw involved site development and rail operations that were out of the county’s control.

“I do not feel comfortable supporting something that is out of my control. Also, who is going to pay if catastrophic failure were to occur? We would foot the bill even if an accident were to occur out of our area,” he said.

The general consensus of the Planning Commission seemed to be leaning toward denial as discussion went on between the five commissioners and planning staff, before coming to a head as final statements were made. Meyer stated that he felt sustainable energy would take the place of fossil fuels regardless of the world’s oil addiction, and that it was just a matter of when and if it will be allowed for.

“We are at a crossroads,” Meyer said. “The concerned citizens, city councils, school boards and students all have asked that we deny this project. No one has asked that we approve this project. These letters are not all from special interest and NIMBY groups. I would say 90 percent are from the general public.”

He added, “How can we ignore our neighbors and the 10,000 residents they represent? Is this an acceptable risk just to achieve a high margin for a major conglomerate? I live by a simple credo, ‘Do

unto others as they would do unto you.’”

Topping based his statement on his 55 years of experience in planning and said that state law requires consistency of zoning, subdivisions and land use with a general plan and the revised project was, in his mind, not consistent with San Luis Obispo County’s safety element.

“Specifically, goal S6 that calls for reducing the potential for harm to individuals and damage to the environment, including hazards materials, and S26, reducing the potential for exposure to humans and the environment by hazards substances,” he said.

Campbell and Harrison were in support of the project moving forward and expressed this throughout the discussion. In his closing statement, Campbell said, “I am a strong supporter of capitalism. We are not going to stop those trains. Statistically, SMR’s footprint is small in comparison to what is already coming through here.”

Harrison followed, saying that as a firefighter he was on site at many derailments and even a pipeline fire and didn’t feel the impact would be any different with a pipeline or trucking crude in.

“You say you want pipelines, but then you don’t support those projects. I think this is safer than trucks and just as safe as a pipeline,” Harrison said. “They are not bringing in oil from Canada that everyone

is concerned about, and I don’t see why we don’t support this.”

Irving made the final statement of the night that would determine the direction the commission would vote and said that he was very disappointed about Phillips as an applicant after they were asked to come back with a well-defined project that, in his eyes, they did not do.

“From May to August, we saw nothing from Phillips, and then in September they asked for a continuance that made no sense,” Irving said. “Though they currently have diminished supplies when they applied for project approval, this was not a problem. So I don’t think that is a valid argument. Where my decision ultimately rests is I don’t feel that the statement of overriding conditions is sufficient enough to support the project. I am going to join commissioner Meyer and Topping to vote it down.”

Meyer made the motion, saying, “I would move to deny the application for the Coastal Development Permit DRC 2012-00095 and adopt the findings included in exhibit C from the Feb. 4 planning commission staff report.”

Topping seconded it with the inclusion of his land use issues with the revised project regarding the safety element within the county’s General Plan. A roll call vote was taken, with Meyer, Topping and Irving voting yes and Harrison and Campbell no. The motion carried 3-2 and the Commission adjourned.

For more information about the SMR project and to see if an appeal is filed, visit slocounty.ca.gov.

For the complete article see the 10-14-2016 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 10-14-2016 paper.

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