After hearing from supporters and opponents of the proposed rail spur project at the Phillips 66 Santa Mara Refinery in southern San Luis Obispo County, the Guadalupe City Council decided Tuesday night not to take a stand on the issue.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Doreen Farr, whose district includes Guadalupe, wrote a letter asking the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission to reject a rail spur extension proposed at the refinery on the Nipomo Mesa.

In February, Farr asked council members to endorse her letter opposing the project to build the facilities so the refinery can process oil transported by railcar.

Council members voted 4-1 not to endorse the letter, with Councilman Ariston Julian as the lone opponent. His earlier motion to support Farr’s letter died for lack of a second.

Councilman Jerry Beatty said dangers — some known, some unknown — already exist near the railroad in the city.

“What are we doing about the trains that are currently through the city that could potentially affect our community as a whole right now?” Beatty said, adding the city already has trains with toxic chemicals traveling through the community and at risk of a devastating derailment. “So I cannot wholeheartedly endorse Supervisor Farr’s letter.”

Councilwoman Virginia Ponce noted that several people in the audience chuckled as a train rolled through the city during Tuesday’s meeting, its whistle and travel along the nearby tracks audible inside City Hall.

“We’re just used to it,” Ponce said. “Is it a problem? Could there be accidents? Yes. But I also cannot really endorse the letter because everything that happens in town could be a potential danger.” 

Julian expressed several concerns, including the effect on the area’s crops, the number of unprotected rail crossings around Guadalupe, the potential for damage to the city’s water supply and more.

“This is one we can’t risk when it comes to the population of Guadalupe and the future of Guadalupe,” Julian said.

Before the council members voted, they heard from proponents and opponents of the project.

Jim Anderson, rail spur project manager and the refinery’s maintenance superintendent, said the project would involve extending an existing track and adding an off-loading facility so oil could be delivered via trains, as many as five a week with 80 cars apiece that would travel from the north and south to the site.

He noted the new trains would be similar in size to the trains that for the past decade have rolled through Guadalupe, en route from San Ardo in Monterey County to Southern California.

The 60-year-old refinery that sits on approximately 1,700 acres typically get its product via pipeline, but is seeking new sources to continue processing up to 44,000 barrels a day. 

“This is necessary to keep the refinery full and viable as an operating facility,” Anderson said. 

The new oil trains are more likely to travel from the north, Anderson said, since they plan to get the product from the Midwest and tar sands from Canada.

The draft environmental impact report is being updated and the final should be released soon, Anderson said, urging council members to wait to review that document.

The San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission is expected to consider the project in late spring, he added.

Laurance Shinderman spoke on behalf of Mesa Refinery Watch, a group that formed 18 months ago to oppose the oil train project but isn’t working to shutter the facility.

“We are not special interest activists,” Shinderman said, adding they come from all backgrounds and united for a common cause. “We are residents of the Nipomo Mesa who are opposed to the construction of the intrusive and potentially dangerous Phillips rail terminal project.

“It’s our belief that the crude by rail and the construction of a crude oil transfer station is a horrible invasion of everyone’s lives on the Central Coast regardless of income, race or politics. It’s not a jobs issue. It’s a health, safety and quality of life issue for everyone.”

The same tankers Phillips plans to use were involved in recent explosions across the country and have been called “traveling time bombs,” Shinderman said. 

Joyce Howerton, aide to state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, read a letter from the legislator urging San Luis Obispo County officials to deny the project, citing 2013 statistics that more oil spilled from trains than in the last four decades combined.

“When weighing the benefits versus the burdens of this project, public health and safety must prevail,” Howerton read.

Several speakers opposed to the project represented the Santa Barbara County Action Network and urged the council to endorse Farr’s letter.

Ken Hough, executive director of SBCAN, said transporting the oil by train would be dangerous, with economic impacts occurring for a long time in if an accident occurred.

“You need to choose between the more certain but not guaranteed modest economic boost to your city of an increase in production at the refinery and the less likely but potentially devastating impact of an accident of locally unprecedented proportions,” Hough said. “Please urge the county of San Luis Obispo to deny this project due to the grave risks it would pose to your city, the residents and the visitors.”

Lompoc resident Janet Blevins labeled oil tankers traveling by rail as “a bomb train.”

“If an accident happened here, schoolchildren would die, maybe on their way to school,” Blevins said. 

Dennis Apel said the council should still weigh in on the project even if the trains don’t pass through the city.

Several communities along the rail route have opposed the project.

“A disaster of this sort anywhere in California would be horrendous,” Apel said.

He recalled another Guadalupe train derailment involving Corona beer — the town smelled of beer for several weeks afterward.

“Not that I’m complaining, but Corona beer is nothing compared to what would happen if one of these trains derailed along the rail in our city or anywhere in California,” Apel said.

Guadalupe resident Shirley Boydstun questioned the motivation for those opposing the project.

“Could this be fostered by people in the South County who frequently show themselves as nearly anti-everything?” Boydstun said. “In this case, it seems to the oil industry.”

She noted last year’s Measure P anti-fracking initiative, which was defeated in Santa Barbara County.

Oil production and refining have been job creators in the North County for decades, she added.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Janene Scully | Noozhawk North County Editor

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com.