San Luis Obispo Planners and Citizens Statewide Rebuff Oil Trains

San Luis Obispo Planners and Citizens Statewide Rebuff Oil Trains
Photo of protest in San Luis Obispo against oil trains by Kyla Mitchell

By Vic Bedoian

Over 500 people from around State converged in San Luis Obispo on February 4 and 5 with the goal of halting a project that would bring mile-long oil trains through the heart of that pastoral county, and through much of coastal California via routes through other states of the West. The staff of experts at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission agreed, asking commissioners to deny the application from the Phillips 66 oil company to build a rail spur at their refinery to accommodate three trainloads of oil a week from undisclosed sources outside the state. Opponents say crude oil shipments would likely come from Canada’s tar sands or North Dakota Bakken crude. The controversy has sparked an outcry from citizen groups and professional organizations throughout the state and nation.

They came from cities as far away as Davis and Fresno, from the bay area, and from neighboring counties with one goal in mind. To stop dangerous trainloads of toxic crude oil winding through treacherous Cuesta Grade, then through town and the college campus on hundred year old tracks, while emitting diesel smoke and off-gassed fumes from rail cars. Charles Varney addressed a noon rally outside the San Luis Obispo government center. Varney is with Surfrider, a national conservation group, and one of the early opponents of the oil train project.

We’re here because we want to protect the health and safety of our citizens, we want to protect our economy, we want to protect our environment and we don’t want oil trains coming to our town.

Inside government center people from all walks of life and hailing from all around the state gave their three-minute statements to county planning commissioners. The crowd filled the hearing chamber and overflowed into adjacent rooms and the movie theater next door. All morning and into the afternoon every speaker asked the commission to turn down the application. It reflected public comments submitted to the county – over 24,000 opposing the project and only 150 in support. Stacy Avalon is a local teacher who organized opposition all the way up to the national education association.

Last summer I was at a city council meeting and someone from the other side of the aisle muttered off ‘they’re going to start talking about the kids again’, and I said ‘yeah, we are going to start talking about the kids again’. Because like that beautiful young lady from Paso Robles High School said, they’re the future and we need to watch out for what’s coming behind us. That’s our developmental task as older adults is to leave something good behind for kids.

Varney says the success of their cause so far is due to a truly grassroots campaign involving all segments of the community.

On the ground it’s the local people that have really made this happen. They’ve been out canvassing neighborhoods, going to city council meetings, lobbying, talking and going to school districts.

The planning staff found the project would be detrimental to the health, safety and welfare of the public. That it includes ten significant and unavoidable environmental impacts and cancer risk to nearby residents, and diesel emissions that would exceed air quality standards. Those ten hazards would also impact other counties along the rail line. In case of an accident, emergency responders would be overwhelmed. Planning experts concluded that the public risk fare outweighs any economic benefit from the rail spur project. Varney mentions the derailment in Quebec that destroyed an entire town, killing 47 people.

The odds of that happening here, they’re relatively low. They were relatively low in Quebec but it happened, so it’s that kind of thing. When it happens, it happens and it happens big with an oil train because of the two and a half million tons of stuff on those trains. And the train cars are not even good in a twenty miles per hour derailment they puncture. They’re like an aluminum beer can on wheels.

The company originally wanted to bring in five trains a week, but backed it to three per week in hopes of convincing commissioners that air quality violations wouldn’t be as bad. Phillips 66 spokesman Dennis Nuss dismissed concerns of a train wreck, saying it was up to the union pacific railroad to safely deliver crude oil to their refinery. The railroad’s representative at the hearing said they’ve spend nearly two billion dollars improving their infrastructure. Nuss promised that the Phillips 66 plans to buy upgraded rail cars.

We’re focusing on this project and what’s going to happen at the refinery. Union pacific is going to be responsible for delivering cars to the refinery. We have confidence in their abilities and we’ll let them speak to that. But we’ve been managing train movements at the Santa Maria facility for decades, so train movements in and out of the refinery are not new to us; it’s just the movement of crude oil that would be new.

Current trains into the refinery are regional deliveries with fewer cars and carrying more stable petroleum products than North Dakota Bakken oil. Phillips 66 claims the project will create 200 construction jobs – but just 12 permanent positions. For Charles Varney it’s all risk and no benefit.

The facts are that the jobs aren’t affected at all. There’s a lot of oil around here. They can maintain their production if they were maintaining their pipeline, but their pipeline corroded, fell apart, spilled 140,000 gallons of oil. Now that’s on their back. We shouldn’t be bringing in oil trains to protect them from bad business practices.

That sentiment is shared by city and county officials as well as citizen groups throughout California, as was loudly testified in San Luis Obispo with the closing chant and response.

When the air we breathe is under attack, what do we do – stand up fight back. When the water we drink is under attack, what do we do – stand up fight back. When our children’s health is under attack, what do we do – stand up fight back.

The fighting may not be over just yet. Even if the SLO Planning Commission adopts the staff recommendations, the county board of supervisors will make the final decision.


Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@


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