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People hold protest signs during a noontime rally Monday outside the San Luis Obispo County Government Center in San Luis Obispo, where the Board of Supervisors held the first day of an appeal hearing for a proposed rail spur project on the Nipomo Mesa.

With a 3-1 vote Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors denied appeals filed after the Planning Commission voted down Phillip 66's contentious oil-by-rail proposal last year.

With a 3-1 vote Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors denied appeals filed after the Planning Commission voted down Phillip 66's contentious oil-by-rail proposal last year. 

North County Supervisor Debbie Arnold was the lone dissenter in the decision. Chairman John Peschong recused himself from the hearing that began Monday because of his consulting background with the oil industry.

Supervisors Lynn Compton, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted to deny the appeals.

"My fear is that today's decision puts trucks on the road with highly flammable material," Arnold said in her dissent.

Arnold also didn't want to see the board outright deny the appeal and said oil trains would continue moving through the county "with or without this project."

Phillips 66 has applied for a development plan and coastal development permit to modify its existing rail spur at the refinery and install rail unloading facilities at its Nipomo Mesa refinery in order to bring in unrefined heavy crude oil there via train.

Project plans also call for extending the facility's existing rail spur, 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.

Trains would consist of 80 rail cars carrying approximately 27,300 gallons each, totaling approximately 2.19 million gallons of crude oil. 

The Planning Commission turned down the proposal in a split vote last October after eight public hearings and hours of public testimony. Most speakers voiced opposition to the plans, citing fears the oil trains could derail, causing fiery explosions and damaging the environment while, also, jeopardizing public health and safety.

Planning Commissioners Eric Meyer, Ken Topping and Jim Irving all voted to deny the project, which had been supported since the onset by Chairman Don Campbell, Arnold's appointee, and Commissioner Jim Harrison, whose district includes the oil refinery. Harrison was appointed by Compton.

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Los Osos resident Jeff Edwards appealed the decision, followed by a separate appeal filed by Phillips 66, which, in part, claimed the rail spur project was necessary to support plant operations, since it doesn't own local crude oil production fields and must transport crude to the Nipomo facility.

Compton couldn't support the appeal, in part, because she has spent the last two years listening to concerned constituents in Nipomo, who have expressed what she believes are valid fears over the oil trains and expansion of the rail spur, she said.

"I would be voting against the neighbors," Compton said. "Their concerns are legitimate, and they are generally concerned. I don't think they are lying to me."

Compton also claimed Phillips 66 has done nothing to publicly quell residents' fears, which, in turn, has allowed those fears to grow.

She believes if the company had done more public outreach, many of the issues raised over the last two years could have been alleviated and, ultimately, addressed.

"This thing has just really mushroomed," Compton said. "I can't be the sole defender when I don't believe in everything that goes along with it."

Hill, who chaired the appeal hearings, said the Planning Commission should be commended for its "incredibly thorough work" on the project and not going into the hearings with a "fixed sense" of how the body was going to vote.

"We have the right decision before us today," Hill said, about staff's recommendation to deny the appeals. "These are difficult decisions for everyone to make. No one ever feels good, believe it or not, about turning a project down."

Phillips 66 can appeal the project to the California Coastal Commission. No decision has been made on that effort, according to company officials.

April Charlton covers Santa Barbara County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn

 

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