By Elizabeth Lasensky, Carol Warren and Lynne Nittler
Uprail residents have until Monday at 4:30 p.m. to send comments on the Phillips 66 Rail Spur Extension Project at the Santa Maria refinery in San Luis Obispo County. Letters may be sent to Murry Wilson at P66email@example.com.
Those who wish to write their own letter may email Lynne Nittler at firstname.lastname@example.org for information on topics and a letter template, or they may add their names to the complete version of the following letter. Simply email Nittler and express your wish to sign the letter.
In communities up and down the West Coast, groups of environmentalists, neighbors and local governments are doing whatever they can to mitigate or outright stop railroad terminals being built at coastal refineries at the end of rail lines that cut through cities and sensitive environmental areas.
Davis residents joined the fight earlier this year against the Valero oil refinery in Benicia, and now are adding their voices to a chorus opposing a Phillips 66 facility in San Luis Obispo County.
A local collection of environmental watchdogs called the Yolano Climate Action Group was one of the first to realize the potential public safety threat of Bakken crude oil trains traveling from out of state, through Roseville, Davis and to Benicia.
The group successfully petitioned the city of Davis Natural Resources Commission in January to oppose the Valero project. The commission then was successful in persuading the City Council a few months later to begin monitoring the project and round up support from government agencies like Yolo County and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments to lobby Benicia for a more complete environmental impact report.
“It was Davis that alerted the entire region,” said Lynne Nittler, a coordinator for the Yolano Climate Action Group.
Meanwhile, Davis’ state and federal representatives have been doing what they can, within the limits of strong federal pre-emption laws for railroads.
Trains carrying the hazardous materials have derailed and exploded in recent years, most notably in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where a July 6, 2013, derailment caused a fire and wiped out a portion of the town, killing 47 people and forcing 2,000 others to flee. A subsequent derailment and explosion just outside Casselton, N.D., in January also alarmed the public.
If the Valero refinery railroad terminal is built at Benicia, Davis would see trains estimated to be 100 cars long filled with volatile Bakken shale crude oil traveling straight through downtown along the same route the Amtrak Capital Corridor uses to carry commuters.
Phillips 66 terminal
But Davis faces another possible threat, as well.
Far to the south and west of Davis are the Central California coast communities of San Luis Obispo County, housing the Phillips 66 oil refinery near the Nipomo Mesa and — potentially — another rail terminal.
That terminal would attract more trains filled with Canadian tar sands crude oil, traveling through Roseville, Davis, Oakland, San Jose and Salinas to Phillips 66. While somewhat less volatile than Bakken shale crude, tar sands crude is mixed with chemical thinners that make it potentially explosive.
Laurence Shinderman leads an activist group in Nipomo opposing the Phillips 66 railroad terminal called the Mesa Refinery Watch Group. The group’s ranks swelled from a handful in recent months to 250 residents spearheading a letter-writing campaign targeting the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
The county is leading the environmental review process for the railroad terminal. Yolano Climate Action Group, the city of Davis and SACOG have submitted their concerns, as well.
Shinderman said Nittler has been helping from the start, giving advice to the Mesa Refinery Watch Group.
The mission among the Davis group is to get people to go from NIMBY to NOPE, or from saying, “Not In My Back Yard” to “Not On Planet Earth,” Nittler said.
It represents a shift in thinking from opposing a particular project to a wider understanding of what environmentalists consider a dangerous trend of oil by rail along the West Coast.
In San Luis Obispo County, the rail line that would carry the oil runs through the Cal Poly SLO campus and over a bridge adjacent to a county drinking water treatment facility.
“The reality is there is human error, there are guys who are going to fall asleep at the switch,” Shinderman said. “You can’t mitigate for human error. The railroad is hiding behind the skirt of federal pre-emption and saying, “Ah, you can’t do anything.’ ”
Under federal code, any laws governing railroads must be uniform across the country, “to the extent practicable.”
That forbids the vast majority of local tinkering, but a small “savings clause” says a state may regulate some railroad activity provided the situation is geared at a local, but not statewide, safety hazard; is not in conflict with federal law; and does not “unreasonably” restrict railroad commerce.
The party claiming federal pre-emption has the burden of proof in any case.
In the matter of the railroad terminals, local cities and counties are ostensibly in charge of the approval — or disapproval — of the projects.
Even there, federal law may give the oil companies and the railroads a recourse in court if the terminals aren’t built.
According to the Association of American Railroads, rail safety is a top priority. In accordance with a 2014 emergency order from the federal Department of Transportation, rail companies are required to notify state emergency response agencies about the routes of trains carrying large amounts of Bakken crude.
The association also notes that railroads train thousands of first responders, including using a $5 million specialized crude-by-rail training and a tuition assistance program, which is estimated to serve 1,500 first responders in 2014.
“If an incident occurs, railroads swiftly implement well-practiced emergency response plans and work closely with first responders to help minimize injuries or damage,” reads a position statement on the association’s website.
The association said the industry is also advocating for safer rail cars that are less prone to disaster. The association claims that in 2013, freight railroads “stepped up the call for even more rigorous standards for tank cars carrying flammable liquids” that included asking that existing tank cars be retrofitted to meet higher standards or be “phased out.”
Nittler said that was a smokescreen, and the federal government does not impose rules the industry doesn’t agree to first.
Even according to AAR, the federal Railroad Safety Advisory Committee that develops safety standards for rail transport uses a “consensus process” to impose new safety standards.
Davis’ Democratic congressman, Rep. John Garamendi, is a member of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. He said the committee is in the process of crafting new rules for railroads.
“I have and will continue to push them to write the strongest possible guidelines,” Garamendi said in an email.
At the state Capitol, state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is part of efforts to pass laws that levy taxes on railroads to provide money for first responders.
“The volume of crude oil being imported into California has increased 100-fold in recent years, and Valero has plans to ship 100 train cars of crude oil per day through the heart of my district to its refinery in Benicia,” Wolk wrote in an email.
“… Currently, local governments along these transport corridors don’t have sufficient funding to protect their communities. When the Legislature reconvenes in January, I will push for funding for developing and maintaining adequate state and local emergency response to accidents and spills involving rail transports of crude oil and other hazardous materials.”
Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroads filed suit against the state in October, claiming that California or any other state does not have the authority to impose safety requirements on them because federal law already does that.
That may put a damper on a new North Dakota law passed Thursday that requires companies to stabilize the volatility of Bakken crude before shipping it out of the state. Texas already requires such handling.
In the meantime, Nittler is busy trying to drum up support for a letter-writing campaign to the SLO Board of Supervisors before a 4:30 p.m. deadline Monday for comments on its draft environmental review.
“If they don’t build it, they won’t come,” Shinderman said.
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