Phillips 66 Oil Train Opponents Say San Jose Route Risks Lives

Jack and Jill Sardegna have lived in San Jose their entire lives. Both were born here—the same doctor delivered them—and they built their careers here. Jack went into sales and marketing; teaching and writing for Jill. Now retired, the couple lives in a downtown condominium, remaining active in their neighborhood association and keeping tabs on civic projects such as the ongoing effort to revitalize St. James Park. Leaving has never crossed their minds. Until now, they say.

Concerns were raised in November, when the Sardegnas read an article warning that trains carrying unconventional oil could be traversing their neighborhood. “Before that, we didn’t know anything about oil trains, the expansion of oil refineries or anything like that,” says Jack. What they discovered is that oil trains have been popping up all over the country, and derailments pose hazards.

According to federal records, oil trains spilled more than a million gallons of fuel in 2013. In a derailment, train cars can explode, causing fires and property damage. This year alone, several derailments and fires took place across the United States and Canada—most notably in West Virginia, Illinois and Ontario. Photographs of the crashes show fiery mushroom clouds exploding into the sky, thick black smoke covering entire neighborhoods, flattened buildings and infernos smoldering days after the initial blast.

“Downtown San Jose is in the midst of a real resurgence,” says Jack, “and I got very concerned that this would curtail that by having long trains coming through town, having the danger of explosions, having carcinogenic fumes, blocking train crossings, things like that. It didn’t feel like it was the best thing for our city.”

The Sardegnas’ apprehension was also personal, as they live two blocks from train tracks. “I’ve had cancer, and if these 100-car trains, once a day, are going to be spewing carcinogens, we have to move,” Jill says. “I can’t allow myself to be engulfed in that.”

The couple began talking to friends, neighbors and local politicians, writing letters to editors and attending community forums on the issue. One of those meetings was in San Luis Obispo, home to a refinery and the oil trains’ final destination. Phillips 66, the multinational energy company that owns the refinery, hopes to bring in oil from distant parts of the country. But to do this, it needs to use California’s railroads that run along the coast and through major cities such as San Jose, Berkeley and Oakland.

Transporting oil by rail is a relatively recent phenomenon, says Jared Margolis, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. It became popular after the discovery of oil in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and in the Bakken formation in North Dakota—unconventional oils that are some of the dirtiest, most dangerous types of fuel. While these findings promised to increase domestic oil production, there was one major problem—not enough pipeline infrastructure to transport all of it. Oil companies turned to the rails.

Unlike the passenger trains American railroads were built for, oil trains are much heavier and bigger, often stretching a mile long, making them more unsteady. According to a report from the Center for Biological Diversity, there were 117 crude-by-rail spills in the United States in 2013—nearly 10 times the number of accidents in 2008.

Laurance Shinderman, a member of the Nipomo-based group Mesa Refinery Watch, which is trying to stop oil trains from coming to California, paints a picture of the worst-case scenario of a derailment and ensuing explosion. “You could have a fireball of apocalyptic proportions,” he says. “It’ll burn from anywhere between one day to maybe two weeks.”

The Environmental Impact Report for the Santa Maria project warns of just this scenario, classifying potential “oil spills, fires and explosions” as Class I, which means there’s no way to mitigate the risk. The EIR also cautions against toxic air emissions, which it says would be “significant and unavoidable” along train routes and drive the 30-year cancer risk above the San Luis Obispo County’s Air Pollution Control standards of acceptability.

“We get all the risk, and they get all the reward,” Shinderman says of Phillips, which downplays potential risks laid out in the EIR.

“The proposed rail project is designed with safety as the top priority and with safety measures embedded in the project,” Dennis Nuss, the company’s director of media and external relations, said in an emailed statement. “Phillips 66 has one of the most modern crude rail fleets in service in the industry, and every railcar used to transport crude oil in our fleet exceeds current regulatory safety standards.”

Residents and business owners from Fayette County, West Virginia, where an oil train derailed and exploded in February, are now suing CSX, the company that operated the 109-car train carrying Bakken oil, citing negligence. The blast left about 200 families displaced.

While this year’s accidents have occurred in rural areas, minimizing the death toll and property damage, the situation would be completely different in a heavily populated area such as San Jose.

“Just look at the rail lines,” says Ash Kalra, a San Jose councilman, noting the homes built right up against rail lines near Diridon and Tamien stations. “There’s no doubt that almost anywhere an explosion would occur in downtown or along neighborhoods in South San Jose would endanger hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.”

The San Francisco-based environmental group ForestEthics calculated that 195,000 residents in San Jose—or about one in five—would live in the “blast zone,” the Department of Transportation’s mandatory evacuation area when a train derails and causes a fire.

Also in the blast zone are major attractions such San Jose’s airport, Levi’s Stadium and Santa Clara University. In California, 5.6 million people live in areas designated as “blast zones”; nationally, it’s 25 million.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s staff attorney, Margolis, says a lack of government oversight is a key issue in the fight. Under common carrier law, railroads can’t prevent what runs on its tracks—so long as it isn’t breaking the law. Without a permitting process, the usual environmental evaluation processes aren’t triggered.

“We went from 9,500 tank cars in 2008 to 500,000 last year,” Margolis says. “There’s no oversight of that, it was just a market move—an economics decision from the industry that clearly caught regulators off guard.”

The only recourse for residents is trying to pressure San Luis Obispo County’s Board of Supervisors to oppose the plan. Shinderman travels up and down the California coast—anywhere the oil trains would go—trying to educate residents about the dangers. Earlier this year, Kalra led the San Jose City Council in unanimously opposing oil trains and sending a letter urging the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission to reject Phillips’ proposal. When San Luis Obispo holds a public hearing on the issue—expected to occur in April or May—Kalra says he’ll organize buses to take Bay Area residents to the meeting.

Eddie Scher, communications director of ForestEthics, is optimistic citizens can win this fight. “There’s nothing inevitable about these trains,” he says. "We don’t need this oil. Stopping these trains won’t stop oil from moving; it won’t stop us from driving our cars. We won’t even notice it.”


    • Think a moment about shipping oil by truck. Each truck requires a driver and more fuel to transport the load thousands of miles. That makes it uneconomical, and therefore not an option for a profit-driven corporation.

      And, if you are really concerned about risk, the risks from global climate crisis far outweigh any of the risks posed by transporting tar sands oil.

      • Moot point, you don’t know what the profit margin is for shipping by truck, but according to forbes there’s still enough of a profit margin to make it viable for oil companies to ship by truck. Trucks are also used exclusively for local transport.

        There’s also a handy little chart there showing the accident rates of the 4 methods of crude transport (boat,truck,rail,pipeline) Of all of these, truck transport has risen in terms of risk, while the other 3 methods have steadily declined in risk.

        If you want to bring global climate crisis into this, ok well.. A single train with a single engine contributes a lot less CO2 emissions than what a fleet of trucks moving the same amount of crude would take. If we really wanted to be environmentally responsible, we would ship all that crude by pipeline (which a lot of people seem to be really upset about.)

        If I had to pick based on most environmentally friendly, it would be pipe.

  1. Current lack of enforcement ignores growing threats of Bakken oil
    explosions so extensive and toxic, fire chiefs have testified that
    “even if we had an infinite amount of foam,” the fires and toxic
    emissions would continue until all fuel had been exhausted, killing
    people and destroying wide swaths of land and riverbanks as they
    burned. Railroads are making secret decisions and hiding documents to
    such an extent, the federal Department of Transportation says it’s
    “impossible to know” to what extent railroads have prioritized or
    ignored safety in choosing routes. Railroads have also lobbied against
    federal regulatory efforts aimed at retrofitting tank cars for greater
    safety. Congress and the White House, Homeland Security and the FRA
    need to address the danger of Bakken oil explosions before disaster strikes.

    That’s why I signed a petition to Sarah Feinberg, acting administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, which says:

    “It’s time the Federal Railroad Administration enforces existing law
    requiring regulation to preserve health and safety in communities
    adjacent to railroad traffic, particularly in metropolitan areas.

    Will you sign the petition too? Click here to add your name:


    • > Current lack of enforcement ignores growing threats of Bakken oil
      explosions so extensive and toxic, fire chiefs have testified that
      “even if we had an infinite amount of foam,” the fires and toxic
      emissions would continue until all fuel had been exhausted, killing
      people and destroying wide swaths of land and riverbanks as they
      burned. Railroads are making secret decisions and hiding documents to
      such an extent, the federal Department of Transportation says it’s
      “impossible to know” to what extent railroads have prioritized or
      ignored safety in choosing routes.


  2. Another possible solution–write to your Congressperson, both US Senators, and the president to approve the Keystone Pipeline. Then those trains won’t be needed.

    • The Keystone pipeline would not affect crude transport in Calif. but there is an interesting side note. Burlington Northern Santa Fe RR carries approx 85% of western crude in the US. BNSF is owned by Warren Buffett and he is a big contributor to B. Obama. Politics and oil – dirty and slimy.

      • Hugh: why would the Keystone Pipeline not affect crude transport in CA? They are talking about transporting Bakken Field oil to CA. That’s the oil Keystone would transport.

        • The Keystone pipeline was going to wind its way down from Alberta, Canada through Montana, S. Dakota, and Nebraska and on to Texas where it would be refined into diesel that would mostly be shipped out to Europe and elsewhere. It was never a pipeline to California.

          • I know that. But if the pipeline handles the Bakken oil, there will be little or none left to ship through CA. Unless Warren Buffet stops it from being built, of course.

          • John, Not sure quite what you are referring to. I’ve never heard of the Keystone XL being mentioned as a pipeline for Bakken shale oil. That the pipeline doesn’t exist is not in the hands of Warren Buffet, but extremely active and demanding climate activist groups like, the center for biodiversity and citizen’s climate lobby and dozens of others along with local and state activists who don’t want this pipeline in their backyards. And it seems pretty clear that neither Obama or Kerry want it built either.

  3. Those oil trains are there because of our own policies.

    The major employer cities: Santa Clara, Milpitas, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale, all insist on adding tons of office buildings but relatively few homes.

    Those cubicles are filled by long distance commuters from Pleasanton and beyond. All those extra cars burn more gasoline, and thus require more fracking, more refineries, and more oil trains.

    So, it’s kind of silly to protest against the oil trains, unless you also are willing to oppose the anti-housing policies that make them necessary.

    • Those cities don’t build housing because San Jose does it for them…and, homes have a negative fiscal impact whereas commercial buildings have a positive fiscal impact.

    • Good to hear from you again Mr. Perry:
      Think Globally. Act Locally.
      Why do progressives ignore this mantra when it comes to the issue of population growth?
      Let’s acknowledge the fact that most of our problems grow as population grows. Traffic. Pollution. Crime. Water shortages. Greenhouse gasses. Encroachment on natural habitats etc. We can’t solve these problems worldwide but we can act on them here at home. Let’s use the power of government to our own local advantage by limiting the amount of housing. More houses CAUSES population growth locally. Let’s do the responsible thing and keep California sparse. Sparse may seem like an inaccurate adjective now but just wait a couple of decades if we keep caving in to the interests of developers in the name of “doing good by providing affordable housing”.

      • “More houses CAUSES population growth locally.”

        I have some news that may be surprising for you regarding where babies come from (and it isn’t more houses)…

  4. This article contains the usual media FUD: Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. There is not a whit of cost/benefit analysis in it, only scary scenarios.

    Nothing worthwhile is all good or all bad, so rational folks need to weigh the alternatives. This story is very similar to Warren Buffet’s media-engineered FUD over the Keystone Pipeline — which benefits Buffet’s company if the pipeline is not built. But of course, that oil will still be shipped — in Buffet’s own rail tankers.

    I suppose asking for rational debate is a lost cause, when people are quoted saying, “I’ve had cancer, and if these 100-car trains, once a day, are going to be spewing carcinogens, we have to move.”

    She doesn’t have a clue, of course. That is 100% emotion talking. She’s going to scare herself to death, and carcinogens won’t be the reason.

    If people relax and think rationally, they will understand that petroleum products have been shipped by rail for more than a century. They are a requirement of modern life. If they are not shipped one way, they will be shipped another. But they are going to be transported.

    That lady should try to live a week without the benefits of fossil fules, like electricity or heat. Within 24 hours she wiould be screaming and begging for coal and petroleum power, and she wouldn’t care a bit how or where it’s produced. And with the state and federal EPAs closely scrutinizing every product, every step of the way, it is very unlikely that there is any threat to her health at all.

    She needs to ask herself why people are living such long and healthy lives today, compared with even a century ago. Fossil fuels have a lot to do with that. Without fossil fulels, most people would be dead well before their 60th birthday.

    I would appeal for a lot less scaremongering, whether it’s over this local train, or the ridiculous ‘runaway global warming’ hoax, or the people who oppose child vaccinations. But the media has colonized the public’s mind with FUD, and they are captives of the most frightening false narratives.

    Amazingly, the lady in the article is perfectly willing to up and move — because a train carrying oil passes by a mile away twice a day. Preposterous, no? But sadly, all too true.

    • Smokey, Some of your counter arguments are reasonable. It is reasonable to assume that oil is transported in a close vessel so it is unlikely that the Sardegna’s would risk immediate health problems simply from an oil train going through their section of town, but what level of risk are you willing to tolerate? If for some reason a train of oil carrying tank cars derails in downtown San Jose this could have grave consequences to hundreds of people. Accidents do happen.

      But you are way way off the mark with your notion that runaway global warming is a hoax. The science of climate change is clear and settled. The long term consequences of not immediately addressing this issue is a real threat to the continuation of civilization, indeed, to all life on the planet. There are climate tipping points which if passed will cause natural sources of carbon (like the carbon stored in permafrost) to be released into the atmosphere. Once this positive feedback gets away from us it will be unstoppable.

      The Guardian recently came out with a campaign to push harder companies and foundations to divestment from fossil fuels. Look at their article. Watch the first video.

      One of the most obvious tipping points we are close to crossing is the loss of Arctic summer sea ice. Although this loss has no effect on sea level rise, sea ice reflects about 50%-70% of the suns energy while open ocean reflects only about 6%, absorbing 94% of the suns energy. In the last 36 years the summer sea ice extend has dwindled by about 30%. Bad enough, but the thickness of the Arctic sea ice has been reduced by upwards of 75%-85%! The loss of Arctic summer sea ice means the planet is warming. You can find out lots about the Arctic sea ice and albedo at

      This excellent video on The Arctic Emergency is deeply troubling. Interviews with many climate scientists start at 1:10

      Yes, coal oil and gas have been the life blood, the vibrant elixirs of our civilization. Without them we would never have achieved all the amazing growth and advances of the last 100 years. But our fossil fuels use is an addiction so deep and pervasive it is almost invisible. Like all addicts, we live for “the highs” and have been blind to the costs – until now.

      Hank Paulson, speaking as a director of The Risky Business Project said, “A huge take away here is that a cautious approach, a business as usual approach is actually radical risk taking.” He said the financial meltdown of 2008 was nothing compared to the climate crisis. “There is no way we can wait until we all recognize the risks and then call on the Federal government to bail us out. That would be too late and not possible.”

      Civilization is like Humpty Dumpty teetering on the edge of his wall. No amount of pleasant lifestyle is worth ruining the planet for ourselves and all the other species we share it with and depend upon for our sustenance. There are green alternative energy sources, not as energy dense as fossil fuels, but solar wind geo-thermal hydro are not going to kill civilization. Continued use of fossil fuels is suicidal.

    • Very pertinent point Insideman. Our politicians appear to have carte blanche when it comes to approving one high density housing project after another. Then they’re allowed to skate when the negative consequences of this massive, state sponsored population explosion are pointed out. Of course, they have plenty of government programs and government regulations lined up to “solve” the very problems for which they themselves are responsible.

      • It’s a shame because they keep crying, “San Jose citizens only generate $140@mo in tax revenue compared to the $300(insert city with jobs here) makes.

        What they never mention is those cities have a lunchtime crowd. San Jose has none, in fact we’re mostly a ghost town during the day. If we had a lunch crowd, that $140 would double, and our tax revenue would equal other cities.

        The big reason tech companies locate in PA is CEO’s want a 5 minute commute to work. They want safe streets for their families to live on, and schools without gangbanger baby thugs. Instead of giving McEnery $6m to build San Pedro Square, we should have given google or facebook that much to relocate here. It does the city no benefit to subsidize more retail or housing.

  5. > “You could have a fireball of apocalyptic proportions,”

    That would be bad.

    Important safety tip. do not travel; remain at home, lock yourself in your bedroom, close the curtains, turn out the lights, get in bed, wear a condom, and pull the covers over your head.

    Oh, and tune your radio to an emergency broadcast station and follow all government instructions.

  6. “Experts say . . . ”

    > Laurance Shinderman, a member of the Nipomo-based group Mesa Refinery Watch, which is trying to stop oil trains from coming to California, paints a picture of the worst-case scenario of a derailment and ensuing explosion. “You could have a fireball of apocalyptic proportions,” he says. “It’ll burn from anywhere between one day to maybe two weeks.”

    I have never heard of Laurance Shinderman.

    For all I know, Laurance’s day job might be co-piloting Airbus A320’s for GermanWIngs airline.

    I have never heard of Nipomo.

    Is it somewhere on our side of the cosmos?

    I have never heard of Mesa Refinery Watch.

    I didn’t even know Mesa had a refinery or that it needed watching.

    Laurance’s issues with oil trains might simply be a consequence of his anger management problems, faulty nurturing as a child, too much caffiene, eating too many pot-laced cookies, or a lack of vitamin D.

    We have no gauge of Laurance’s intellectual credentials. Is he a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Graduate School of Business like George W. Bush, or is he the product of some second tier diploma mill like Stanford or Berkeley, of does he even have an education at all?

    How does Laurance know that an apocalyptic oil train fire will burn from one day to maybe two weeks? Has he tried it?

    It the Koch Brothers really put their minds to it, couldn’t the make an oil train fire last three weeks?

    Sorry Caitlin Yoshiko. I’m not buying it.

    People fib about Obamacare. Why couldn’t they be fibbing about oil trains, too.

  7. The fact is people live and work near the tracks, as these are the same tracks that transport people to and fro. And it’s also true that this form of oil transportation is indeed dangerous, as we saw in the Canadian village that was torn apart. Also, and more recently, an explosion in West Virginia. In a nutshell, I do oppose this form of transportation because of what might happen to our community. Here is a video I urge you to watch.

  8. It would be great if both the opponents and the Philip 66 officials could sit together with the government official for finding the solution towards oil trains carrying tons of crude oil crossing from the city area. Without sitting together, no problem can be solved. The concern of local residents is also very true, since if anything happens it’s not only the local nearby area that will be affected, but also the real-estate business and tourism will be hampered.

  9. Transportation of oil by trains is not a recent development as stated by Mr. Margolis. Trains have been transporting oil in tank cars almost as long as there were trains. Also, railroads were not originally built for passenger trains. They were built to move freight as well. Finally, mile-long freight trains are also not uncommon; they have been around for a long time as well.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *