Two sides to oil refinery’s plan
A proposed rail terminal pits white- collar retirees against blue- collar workers.
SAN LUIS OBISPO — It’s almost as if you’ve got two versions of the American dream playing out on the Nipomo Mesa, where white- collar retirees are pitted against blue- collar refinery workers over a proposed crude oil rail terminal off Highway 1.
The new terminal would result in a big increase in the number of crude oil tanker trains crossing the state to bring the unrefined, highly flammable product to Phillips 66’ s Santa Maria refinery. The two opposing forces came together last week here, during a two- day hearing before San Luis Obispo County planning commissioners, whose own staff has recommended the project be denied.
On one side, you had hundreds of upper- middleclass professional types, retirees from California’s urban centers, who were beckoned to the Central Coast by the lower cost of living and attractive new residential developments like Monarch Dunes on the Nipomo Mesa, just across the highway from the 60year- old Phillips refinery.
They are people such as computer consultant Tom Nefcy, 62, who lives a thousand yards from the proposed terminal.
“I want you to look at my face,” he told commissioners, “and see the face of someone who is not going to be able to complain to you when one of these trains explodes. You should take some responsibility in that. You invited me here, you approved Monarch Dunes. You ringed the Phillips 66 refinery with a bunch of retirees that vote. And by doing so, you basically told the Phillips 66 refinery that their days are numbered.”
On the other side, you had a handful of refinery workers, people who grew up in the area, never made it to college and yet have been able to make enough money to buy homes and send children to college thanks to good union wages.
“To the retirees, I congratulate you, you guys who have made it,” said Mike Miller of the United Steelworkers union. “I want to talk about the people I represent.”
He represents people such as Juan Hernandez, a training lead at the refinery, who said he grew up in Nipomo, picked strawberries, joined the Marines and then found a good job with Phillips 66.
“If the refinery is not profitable, in my opinion, it’s going to get shut down,” Hernandez told commissioners. “I ask you to consider us locals who grew up here in this county, and approve the project.” ( There is no indication that the refinery would cease to be profitable, or even close down. It’s an important cog in the Phillips Petroleum machine, sending refined crude by pipeline up to the company’s Rodeo refinery in Contra Costa County for further processing.)
Again and again, Phillips 66 employees vouched for their company’s commitment to safety over profits.
“I want my children to have the bright future that I have,” said Mike Avila, 35, a refinery operator. “Phillips 66 is a business, they are trying to make money, but I, for one, have never seen them put profits over my safety.”
Which is all well and good, but is, in fact, beside the point.
Phillips 66 can employ every safety tool in its arsenal and still jeopardize the health and well- being of its neighbors and other communities in its path.
The Planning Commission’s staff listed nearly a dozen effects that cannot be mitigated — including carcinogenic emissions from diesel trains; the lights and noise that will emanate from the rail yard, particularly during nighttime operations; the impact on environmentally sensitive habitat; and the potential for a deadly blast.
Perhaps most alarming, however, is that Phillips has no control over Union Pacific’s tracks, on which its crude will arrive from points north and south, traversing a huge swath of California. There has been an alarming increase in American oil train derailments, believed to result from poor track conditions or shifting weight in tanker cars.
So workers can talk about their company’s commitment to safety, but it’s hard to compete with kids who talk about living in the “blast zone,” or the video shown by Nipomo resident Steve Dubow featuring footage of oil trains exploding into toxic mushroom clouds.
All it takes is one accident to wipe out a town.
Which is why municipalities and counties up and down the state have asked San Luis Obispo County to reject the terminal.
“My concern is how this will impact my city,” said Steven Nash, who lives 130 miles south, in Oxnard. Union Pacific’s tracks run right down the middle of his town, where he serves on the planning commission. “For you to impose significant, unmitigatable impacts on my city is the height of irresponsible governance.” Or is it? “If we want the benefits of an industrial civilization, all of us have a responsibility to share in the maintenance and growth of the energy that allows us to have the type of civilization that we do,” said Mike Brown, a pro- refinery lobbyist who represents a coalition of farmers, ranchers, truckers, engineering firms and oil companies.
“There is a moral, ethical reason why people who want to drive around in Mercedeses and f ly around in 777 jets should support the factors of an industrial civilization.”
This is a clever argument, but one that makes less sense at a moment when the world is shifting its gaze from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, and the state of California is leading the way.
Whatever the planning commission decides, the matter will almost certainly be appealed to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
This is the wrong project, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
PROTESTERS march through San Luis Obispo in opposition to a proposed crude oil rail terminal off Highway 1. The terminal would result in a big increase in the number of crude oil tanker trains crossing the state.