Thursday, September 29, 2022     Volume: 23, Issue: 31

Santa Maria Sun / Commentary

The following article was posted on August 5th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 22 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 22

Civil rights in the 'blast zone'

The government should be required to notify everyone within 1 mile of the rail line of the potential dangers associated with oil train


The Phillips 66 oil train terminal project proposes to bring mile-long oil tanker trains, each carrying 2.4 million gallons of toxic, flammable, explosive tar-sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada, through our county and communities, five times a week for the next 20 years. The imported oil is refined primarily for export sale to Asia. 

The U.S. Department of Transportation has formally designated a “blast and evacuation zone” of 1 mile running parallel to the tracks in case of an oil train derailment (six so far this year in the U.S. with five of them exploding): 30 percent of the population of SLO County and 40-plus public and private schools are in this blast zone. In some communities it is much more (Paso Robles, 45 percent; San Luis Obispo, 71 percent; Grover Beach, 78 percent; Oceano, 88 percent). More than 95,000 people in the county are directly impacted, yet very few of them even know it. The populations of Santa Barbara County and all the other counties along the rail line will be affected as well, yet there has been no formal notification to blast-zone residents by any governmental agency. 


Because the Phillips 66 “project,” for government purposes, only consists of the oil train terminal at the Nipomo Mesa refinery. It doesn’t count the many thousands who every week for the next 20 years will be subjected to the threat of derailment, fires, explosions, massive amounts of new air pollution from diesel engine exhaust and toxic, carcinogenic fumes vented from the tank cars carrying the dirtiest crude oil on earth. It doesn’t count the 11 significant environmental impacts on people, especially those living in the blast zone.

Local citizens have taken it upon themselves to begin canvassing the blast zones throughout SLO County with factual information fliers, which inform people of the potential dangers to themselves and their property. What we are finding is that typically upward of 90 percent of residents and business owners we talk to have NEVER heard any specifics about the Phillips 66 project. Just two days ago, a colleague and I canvassed within one block of the train tracks running through Oceano. Only four of the approximately 100 persons we contacted knew anything about the project. Not surprisingly, after we briefly shared the facts of the project, the majority of them were opposed to it. It is easy to see when your community is being put at great risk simply for the profits of the seventh biggest corporation in the U.S. There’s no significant benefit to us; just a lot of huge risks and, for sure, negative health consequences (not to mention huge economic and environmental risks).

When a multinational oil-refining corporation proposes a project that puts your health, property, businesses, schools, economy, and environment at risk, do you think you have a right to know about it? Why was Phillips 66 not directed to send a letter to EVERY residence and business in the blast zone across the entire county? The county is requiring Phillips 66 to inform every parcel within 300 feet of a new oil pipeline being laid along Old Oak Park road in Arroyo Grande and Pismo—and oil pipelines are the relative safest mode to transport crude oil. The most dangerous mode is mile-long oil trains, but the many thousands impacted by these disasters waiting to happen get no official word. The county planner in charge of the oil train project said the local media and county website provide sufficient publicity, and they will do no more than the minimum required by their attorneys. 

A quick search of the SLO Tribune shows six news stories regarding the P66 project in 2015. Local television stations have had virtually nothing to say about the project and featured a brief and distorted piece, about the July 11 rally and march in SLO.

This is a civil and human rights issue—the right to know that something of this magnitude and impact is planned for your neighborhood should not be the responsibility of citizen volunteers. This is a fundamental responsibility of government—to inform us of significant risks to life and property so we can be part of the decision-making process if we so choose. To not require specific public notification of all persons living in the blast/evacuation zone is a clear dereliction of duty and keeps the public uninformed and thus, uninvolved. Who likely benefits from that?

Local city councils and advisory bodies are beginning to show some interest in having more public discussion, as well they should. Most say they will await the final environmental impact report (EIR) before scheduling such events. This means that the county planning office must leave a sufficient window of time (minimum eight weeks) between the release of the final EIR and the beginning of public hearings.

Charles Varni, Ph.D., lives in Oceano and is the South SLO County coordinator for the Stop Phillips 66 Project. Send comments to the Editor Shelly Cone at

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