Derailing the Polluters - Impact Litigation Stops Crude By Rail In Its Tracks

Roger Lin, Staff Attorney - Communities for a Better Environment

Roger Lin, Staff Attorney - Communities for a Better Environment

On March 14, 2017, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to reject Phillips 66’s proposed oil train offloading terminal. A grant from the Impact Fund to Communities for a Better Environment (“CBE”) made this victory possible. 

In 2012, we discovered that Phillips 66 was expanding its refinery in San Luis Obispo to allow the refinery to process more polluting and more hazardous oils, and worse yet, would obtain those oils by rail. The initial Environmental Impact Report for the project, however, failed to disclose these hazards and dangers to the public and worker health and safety. Eventually, we forced the company to admit that if built, the Phillips 66 oil trains terminal would have allowed more than 5.5 million gallons of crude oil to be shipped via rail to its local refinery each week, and made it possible for Phillips 66 to refine volatile and carbon-intensive tar sands crude from Canada. Tar sands crude, when prepared for transport, is thinned with an unstable blend of chemicals that have been known to explode in derailment incidents, which have become increasingly frequent in recent years.

Tar sands crude has been known to explode in derailment incidents.

Tar sands crude has been known to explode in derailment incidents.

Trains servicing the Phillips 66 project would have traveled from the north and south through hundreds of major California cities and smaller communities, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, Davis, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Jose. These trains also would have jeopardized numerous ecologically sensitive areas including the San Francisco Bay and California's central coast.

More than 34,000 Californians opposed the Phillips 66 oil train project in comments and petitions, and more than 45 cities, counties, and school boards have sent letters urging the County to deny the crude-by-rail proposal. 350 Silicon Valley produced the following video documenting residents’ concerns:

On October 5, 2016, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission denied the crude-by-rail proposal, in large part because of several significant and unavoidable air quality impacts and hazard impacts presented by derailment or spill up and down the rail lines. Instead of appealing to the next administrative body, Phillips 66 instead brought an action against the Planning Commission decision directly to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.

The Impact Fund grant allowed us to successfully intervene in that proceeding and defend what its members and several thousand allies had won - San Luis Obispo’s denial of Phillips 66’s project. The Superior Court judge ruled that Phillips 66’s legal challenge to the earlier Planning Commission decision was premature and rejected Phillips 66’s demand to stay the Board of Supervisors’ hearing. This allowed the hearing to proceed, for our members and those several thousand residents to voice their concerns, and ultimately, the Board’s rejection of this crude-by-rail project. 

Not only did the Impact Fund provide the financial assistance for us to help keep the door open for on the ground action, but it also provided financial assurance that we and our allies were prepared for any litigation that could arise. This strengthened our campaign and allowed us confidently direct resources to our efforts the administrative level.

"This is a tremendous victory for people power over corporate power. Californians around the state have rejected these dangerous bomb train projects using local authority to defeat Big Oil's greedy plans." — Andres Soto, CBE Richmond Organizer

"This is a tremendous victory for people power over corporate power. Californians around the state have rejected these dangerous bomb train projects using local authority to defeat Big Oil's greedy plans." — Andres Soto, CBE Richmond Organizer

We have seen the same benefit of our Impact Fund grant in two other site-fights: in November 2015, the WesPac developer withdrew its application for a giant crude-by-rail terminal in Pittsburg, California. In September 2016, the Benicia City Council affirmed its Planning Commission decision to deny the Valero Benicia Crude by Rail project. 

The Impact Fund has also enabled us to litigate three cases where our campaign did not yet succeed at the administrative level. Those pending cases are: CBE v. San Joaquin Valley APCD (Bakersfield Crude Terminal); CBE v. Contra Costa County (Phillips 66 Propane Recovery Project); and Center for Biological Diversity v. State Lands Commission (Tesoro Avon Marine Oil Terminal Lease Renewal). Finally, our communities in the Los Angeles area, and statewide, are faced with a massive merger and expansion of the Tesoro and BP refineries.  The Final Environmental Impact Report for that expansion project should be released any day.    

How close are you to oil trains and a derailment disaster? Use the blast zone map at Oil Train Blast Zone to find out

How close are you to oil trains and a derailment disaster? Use the blast zone map at Oil Train Blast Zone to find out

Moving oil by train means that hazardous oil train routes would cross through eight of the state’s ten largest cities and through the downtowns of many smaller cities and towns. Increased oil train traffic is a threat to all Californians but brings the greatest risk to environmental justice communities: low income communities of color that already live with a disproportionate and elevated health and safety risk from industrial spills, fires and explosions, as well as, chronic, daily air and water pollution.

Low-income communities of color that are threatened by oil trains are already forced to carry heavy environmental burdens. For example, eighty percent of homes in the oil train blast zone are environmental justice communities, as measured by the State of California’s Environmental Screen metric.  Nine out of ten of California’s largest cities on oil train routes have an even higher rate of discriminatory impact than the state average. In these cities, 82–100 percent of people living in the blast zone are in environmental justice communities. Transport of extreme crude by rail simply adds to the disproportionate impact these communities already face.

As California sees shrinking volumes of traditional oil refined in state, refiners continue to seek to construct new infrastructure to obtain and refine those new sources that are more polluting and hazardous. In response, we continue to remedy the environmental injustice presented by these various refinery expansions by using the California Environmental Quality Act process to force disclosure of all environmental impacts and impacts to public and worker health and safety, and allow for informed decision-making.