Routing oil trains through densely populated California towns is a bad idea

Editorial of the San Luis Obispo Tribune September 6, 2015

<<We aren’t fans of the NIMBY way; too often we’ve seen it used by self-interested individuals who don’t want to share their roads or their schools or their parks and playgrounds with newcomers.StopOilTrains

Yet when it comes to the railroad spur proposed at the Santa Maria Refinery on the Nipomo Mesa, it’s understandable that communities throughout California would not want a facility that will bring more oil trains – as many as five per week, each with approximately 80 tank cars — through their neighborhoods.

With the possible exception of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, we can’t recall a single project in San Luis Obispo County that’s been so negatively received; The Tribune reported in July that more than 40 government agencies or public officials in the state have opposed the project.

This is not an over-reaction by tree-hugging, left-leaning, anti-business environmentalists. It’s an effort to keep families and communities out of harm’s way – a reasonable response, we believe, given what’s been happening in the oil industry.

As oil production in North Dakota and Canada has taken off, shipments of oil by rail have increased dramatically, as have derailments and explosions of oil trains. In 2010, there were nine accidents in the United States involving railroad tank cars carrying crude oil; in 2014 there were 143. That does not include the 2013 crash in Canada that killed 47 people.

Can’t happen here?

Consider this piece of not-so-ancient history: On Aug. 11, 1986, a train carrying highly flammable isobutene derailed in Grover Beach, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 people. Had one of the tank cars leaked, there would have been a fiery explosion.

We acknowledge that the risk of a repeat occurrence is slight, but we cannot in good conscience support the Phillips 66 rail spur project.

The plant’s safety record is not at issue here; it’s the record of the rail industry that’s in question, and as statistics show, that’s been far from blameless.

There have been efforts to improve safety – that’s good – but they’ve been long in coming and they have not been entirely successful.

For example, an oil train that derailed and caught fire in West Virginia in February of this year involved newer model tank cars designed to be less susceptible to puncture than the DOT 111 cars, which were the type involved in the fatal derailment in Canada.

We support the Santa Maria refinery and we hope it can remain in business for many years to come.

But when it was built in the early 1930s, its mission was to process oil from the surrounding communities. Allowing it to morph into a receiving site for oil trains that originate from far away and pass through communities with millions of people is haphazard planning that defies logic.

As a recent editorial in the San Jose Mercury News asked: “Can anyone seriously be considering rolling these trains through the East Bay and San Jose?”

Routing oil trains through densely populated California communities – whether it’s San Jose or San Luis Obispo — is a bad idea.

We strongly urge our county officials to reject it.>>