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.)
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.