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A split San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted down a controversial proposal Wednesday that would have allowed Phillips 66 to transport crude oil to its Nipomo Mesa refinery via trains.

With a 3-2 vote, the commission backed staff's recommendation to deny a development plan and coastal development permit allowing Phillips 66 to modify its existing rail spur at its Santa Maria refinery and install rail unloading facilities there in order to bring in unrefined heavy crude oil via train.

"Where my decision ultimately lies is that I don't feel the statement of overriding considerations is sufficient to support the project," said Commissioner Jim Irving, who was seen as a potential "yes" vote.

Irving had indicated during a straw vote of the project in July that he would support the proposal.

However, he joined with Commissioners Eric Meyer and Ken Topping in denying the project, which was supported since the onset by Chairman Don Campbell and Commissioner Jim Harrison, whose district includes the oil refinery. 

"There are elements of it," Irving added, "but I just don't think the case has been made appropriately by the applicant that we can override the recommendations of our staff and the county."

Project plans also called for extending the existing rail spur at the refinery, and constructing five parallel tracks and a rack area to allow unloading up to three oil trains per week, not to exceed 150 a year.

Each train would have consisted of 80 rail cars carrying approximately 27,300 gallons each, totaling approximately 2.19 million gallons of crude oil. 

Planning staff recommended denial of the project based on several factors including its incompatibility with a number of county plans, risks to public health and safety, and numerous Class 1 unavoidable environmental impacts that can’t be mitigated.

Crude oil now is piped to the Phillips 66 facility that's located on the Nipomo Mesa, as well as trucked in to the plant. 

During Wednesday's meeting at the County Government Center, which was the eighth time the commission has held a public hearing on the plans since February, Harrison reiterated that he believes bringing oil to the refinery via rail is much safer than via highway.

"Everybody uses oil," Harrison said. "Not a single person in this room didn't use oil today or something that was produced by oil. You used gasoline coming here."

He added, "I don't think this is any greater danger (with oil trains) than a lot of other things. Quite frankly, I think it's safer than trucks and I think it's just as safe as pipelines."

Phillips 66 representatives have said the company plans to transport oil to the refinery via trucks if the commission didn't approve the proposed rail spur project.

The company currently trucks oil to the facility and is permitted through the county's Air Pollution Control District to have up to 52 oil tankers a day deliver crude to the facility.

Several hundred people spoke during the previous public hearings on the project, with most of those voicing opposition to the plans, citing potential risks associated with hauling crude oil via train. Fears centered on derailment.

It's expected Phillips 66 will appeal the Planning Commission's decision to the Board of Supervisors.

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April Charlton writes for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn

 

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