Part I: When Marty met Linda
In December 2013, a couple of neighbors from an upscale residential development on the Central Coast attended a community meeting at a middle school in Arroyo Grande. They had gone to learn about a new project proposed by oil giant Phillips 66 for its Santa Maria refinery, which sits near the ocean below the Nipomo Mesa, where they live.
What the neighbors, mostly retired professionals who had moved here from places such as Irvine and New Jersey, loved most about the area was its bucolic splendor, lower cost of living, and slower pace. Phillips 66 had always shipped oil to and from the Santa Maria refinery by pipeline. Now it was proposing a new way to deliver the crude: by train. And it would have to build a new rail spur at its refinery to accommodate mile-long oil trains, coming in on Union Pacific's main line, at the rate of three a week, each carrying 2.2 million gallons of crude.
This did not sound entirely delightful to the neighbors. A 1.3-mile-long rail spur within sight of their homes would mean light pollution from nighttime operations, and plenty of noise. Also, diesel locomotives spew particulates, and the Nipomo area already has an air quality problem with wind-blown dust off nearby sand dunes.
And of course, oil trains can explode.
"So I am leaving that meeting, and I hear this female voice behind me," said Martin Akel, 69, a publishing consultant for media companies. "And she says, 'You know, we need to do something about this.' I keep walking, because I work full time, and we are about to hit a curb, and I grab her arm because I think she's going to fall over, and she grabs my arm and repeats, 'We've got to do something about this.' I said, 'I don't really have time for this stuff.'"
Famous last words.
This was how Akel met his neighbor Linda Reynolds, a retired real estate agent from Irvine, who founded the Mesa Refinery Watch Group. Eventually, the group had a core membership of 12, and one burning mission: to keep oil trains out of their backyard.
Part II: Zebra stripes, candy and the Law of Attraction
On Thursday, I sat in the dining room of Akel's spacious home in the Trilogy at Monarch Dunes residential development, where most of his fellow activists live.
We were joined by two other members of the Mesa Refinery Watch Group, Laurance Shinderman, 75, a retired computer sales executive and part-time Uber driver, and Gary McKible, 62, a retired negligence attorney. (Reynolds, sadly, was out of town.)
"Phillips 66 used to come to Trilogy every year and ply residents with shrimp and booze," said Akel.
"Around Christmas," said McKible. "It was a goodwill thing."
"They haven't been for two years," said Akel. "Maybe it was something we said."
At public hearings, the oil train opponents delivered lots of grim news about the dangers of crude oil trains, which they called "bomb trains," but overall they were upbeat. Wearing referee shirts, they would set up tables adorned with bowls of candy. "We'd say, 'Stop by the zebra table and we will orient you," said Akel. "If they spoke, we would give them candy. I spent a lot of money on candy, and I didn't put in for reimbursement."
For more than two years, Akel has emailed a professional-caliber, monthly newsletter to about 2,000 supporters, 1,000 government officials and several hundred members of the media.
And that is where the Law of Attraction comes in. "You attract all the resources, material and contacts that you need to fulfill your mission," explained McKible.
For instance, out of the blue, Stanford's Environmental Law Clinic got in touch to help the activists understand railroad law, which can be complicated. An anonymous philanthropist sent a check large enough to cover bus rentals and other costs.
"We were positive," said McKible, "and stuff came to us."
Part III: The emperor had no clothes
Looking back, said Akel, the group's campaign against the Phillips 66 oil train reminded him of the famous Hans Christian Andersen story about the emperor's new clothes.
Each time Phillips 66 or its proponents claimed that oil trains were safe, that the kind of oil it wanted to transport was safe, or that Union Pacific tracks are safe, the Mesa Refinery Watch Group was able to point and laugh.
They researched every oil train derailment and explosion, the type of oil transported, the type of tankers used, and track conditions.
"They said we aren't going to bring in any oil that's dangerous," Akel said, "and we stood up at a meeting and said, 'Are you bringing in Bakken crude from North Dakota?' And they said, 'We may.' We went crazy on that. Bakken crude killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic [Quebec]."
"Obliterated a whole town," said Shinderman.
When Phillips said it would transport crude oil in "the absolute safest tankers that exist," said Akel, the group did its homework. There are no fail-safe tankers. "Guess what? When they fall over, they rupture and everything goes boom."
Also, poorly maintained tracks have been implicated in recent derailments as well, including one last year in Mosier, Ore.
"The emperor tells us it's going to be safe, and we do the research, and say 'Oh, no, you ain't got clothes on anymore,'" said Akel.
Last October, after many long hearings, the San Luis Obispo Planning Commission turned down the project. It was the first big victory for the Mesa Refinery Watch Group.
Phillips appealed to the county Board of Supervisors. And on March 14, a second major victory came when the supes voted 3 to 1 to reject the Phillips appeal. Like the planning commissioners, the supes concluded the project could endanger Californians who live near Union Pacific tracks in what oil train opponents refer to as the "blast zone."
They found that it would generate virtually no new jobs. Nor did they believe Phillips 66's veiled threats that if the rail spur was not approved, the refinery might close.
Phillips can appeal to the California Coastal Commission, whose staff has already gone on record objecting to the rail spur. Or the company could probably go to court if it wants to keep fighting. It has not said what it plans to do, and did not respond to a request for comment.
But eight counties and 51 cities representing more than 15 million Californians up and down the coast have opposed the project. (Seriously, who wants potentially explosive, mile-long crude oil trains barreling through their towns?)
More than a year ago, after I met with the Mesa Refinery Watch Group for the first time, I was impressed by their savvy, commitment, honestly and dedication.
I predicted they would win this fight.
And so they have.