Californians Protest Crude Oil Trains

by Claudette Begin

March 6, 2016

On February 4, hundreds of concerned residents traveled from north and south in California to demonstrate and testify at hearings against Phillips 66’s proposal to bring in 150 crude oil trains a year to the California county of San Luis Obispo. Trains would be travelling some distance to reach the proposed train spur. The SLO County Planning Commission convened the hearings 18 months after Phillips 66 made the initial proposal. Residents near the proposed Nipomo site immediately started door to door education about the proposal, drawing attention from environmental organizations and many others and slowing the hearing process.

Because over 400 people had signed up to speak (overwhelmingly opposed) at the February 4-5 hearings, the commission had to add a February 25 hearing date for all to be heard. The February 4th noon rally had an impressive range of speakers: a teacher representing the support of teacher unions all the way to national NEA level, a nurse from California Nurses Association, a student from Cal Poly reporting on resolutions from local and statewide student associations, community activists and mayoral and county supervisor elected officials.

Among the rally speakers was Andres Soto, an early Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) activist now resident of Benicia, inviting people to attend Benicia Planning Commission hearings about Valero’s proposal for oil trains. (This commission voted unanimously to deny the project after several days of hearings, citing public health issues and danger to Davis and Sacramento communities “up the line. See the February 9 Vallejo Times-Herald article and photos by Irma Widjojo.)

Concern and outrage from the explosive July 2013 derailment that killed 47 people and incinerated the town center of Lac Megantic, Quebec, and the spread of information about a number of less publicized U.S. oil train derailments since then, has been introducing uncertainty for normally quietly approved oil company proposals. Recently, Wes Pac withdrew its proposal for crude oil transport to Pittsburg, CA (Bay Area) following organized community opposition there assisted by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups.

Trains are federally regulated, so the oil companies expect and argue that they can preemptively build their projects to carry bakken or tar sands oil. The movement is demanding that local public health be included in the decisions. Oil companies are finding it not so easy to respond to global economic pressures assailing them at the same time as their bakken and fracking methods are increasingly unpopular.

New alliances are forming so that oil company proposals even in poorer, already polluted communities are no longer a given. Successful organizing among diverse groups by the RPA (which held a critical teach-in on March 1, 2014) has helped facilitate and encourage joint efforts of environmental and community groups.

Claudette Begin is a member of Solidarity in Union City, CA.