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Oil spill ruins dunes

BY DANIEL R. GANGLER | GUADALUPE, Calif. | November 23, 1999

GUADALUPE, Calif. (Nov. 23, 1999) -- Sometimes disasters happen very slowly. The Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes on the Pacific coast of central California have hidden a disaster of colossal proportions for decades.

The California Coastal Commission recently granted Union Oil Co. of California (Unocal) another series of permits including one to bulldoze a beach in order to clean up a 30-year oil spill estimated to have leaked between 8 million and 20 million gallons of petroleum products into the sand.

These permits are an ongoing stage of Unocal's 5-year plan to clean up the Guadalupe site located 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Environmentalists say the permit compromises the fragile environment of the dunes, described as a remote stretch of wilderness, frequented mostly by fisherman, surfers, and wildlife enthusiasts.

"It's the lesser of two evils," said the Rev. George Hooper, pastor of St.

Andrew's United Methodist Church in Santa Maria located 12 miles from the controversial beach. "Human beings have had an adverse impact on the area. God calls us to have a long view."

Bulldozing the beach goes against California's environmental laws. "Is it

better to let it sit or dredge the spill up?" questions Hooper. He says people feel strongly on both sides of the issue at his church. Despite their differences, pro-environmentalist and pro-business proponents share the same pews.

Unocal spokesman James Bray, based in San Luis Obispo, the county seat, said this particular beach-dunes project will be done in two phases: the first phase from now until March 2000 and the second phase from November 2000 to March 2001.

The two phases are necessary to avoid interfering with the nesting season of the Snowy Plover, a federal and state protected bird. Bray described the area to be excavated as the length of two football fields along the beach and several acres deep into the dunes. He said Unocal plans to restore the beach and dunes damaged by the spill and underground leakage.

Bray said the upper habitat surface, containing seedlings, roots, and a layer

of clean soil under the surface, will be removed and placed aside. The underlying hydrocarbon-affected soil will be removed for treatment. Clean beach fill will replace the contaminated soil.

Finally, the clean soil and upper habitat will be replaced. This particular project is one of 17 excavations that are part of Unocal's ongoing remediation projects at this site. Bray said Unocal has received over 1,000 permits so far from state, county, and local government agencies to restore the area. He did not know how much this particular two-year project would cost, but said it was part of last year's settlement.

Unocal agreed in July 1998 to pay the state $43.8 million in one of California's biggest settlements negotiated by California's Attorney General Dan Lungren. The

Unocal agreement also included the Central Coastal Region Water Quality Control Board, California Department of Fish and Game, California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the California Coastal Conservancy. The state and many of its environmental regulatory agencies sued Unocal for penalties, natural resource damages, and injunctive relief to secure site cleanup. The settlement ended five years of negotiation after Unocal was charged with criminal activity because it tried to cover up spills and leakage of petroleum products at the Guadalupe field.

But environmentalists say the settlement isn't enough. The Surfers Environmental Alliance described the settlement as a "paltry token to the public," compared to the $425 million Exxon had to pay on its 1989 crude oil spill off the coast of Alaska. The Unocal spill is estimated by some to be twice as big as that caused by Exxon's ship Valdez.

At its peak in 1988, Unocal's Guadalupe 2,700-acre oil field contained 215

wells which produce about 4,500 gallons a day. In 1990 a majority of the field's pumps were shut down. By 1994 Unocal took most of the remaining wells out of commission. Now the company proceeds in a 120-acre site to clean up the contaminant diluent, a kerosene-like product placed in crude oil to assist

in its flow through pipelines.

But Guadalupe isn't the only community in the county that Unocal left in

disarray. In 1997, a year before the Guadalupe settlement, Unocal's CEO Roger Beach publicly apologized to the citizens of Avila Beach, a small town 20 miles north of Guadalupe, for the underground petroleum contamination caused by past operations, including a 25,000-gallon spill in the summer of 1992.

While meeting in Avila two years ago, Beach unveiled a four-point restoration

program. Unocal agreed to clean up the contamination, compensate property and business owners for economic damages, restore the community with a minimum of disruption, and remove the large petroleum storage tanks from its Avila tank farm. Unocal took full responsibility for the contamination of Avila Beach.

This summer the company scooped out 400,000 gallons of sand contaminated by petroleum from underground pipelines that ran through downtown Avila and the beach leading to Unocal's pier. Unocal agreed to pay $18 million for cleanup and restoration costs at Avila.

Commenting on its pending project at Guadalupe beach, Unocal's spokesman Bray

said, "We know it's time to step up to the plate and make things right."

The cleanup is necessary to save the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes which are

endangered by Unocal's contamination. The dunes are very unique to the Pacific coast and part of a preserve that runs 18 miles along the coast of San Luis Obispo county. According to the county's Sierra Club, the dunes complex has been designated as part of a National Natural Landmark by the U.S. Department of Interior. The dunes -- second largest in California -- are the highest beach dunes in the western United States, reaching a height of 500 feet. At least 18 species of rare and endangered plants are found here. More than 200 bird species live in or migrate to this preserve including one endangered species and two protected species.

"The contaminated area of the beach is right in the middle of the preserve,"

said Brian Stark of The Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County. "It's a very damaging environment."

The conservancy is a nonprofit countywide land trust trying to turn the tide

in preserving the damaged and threatened lands like the dunes. According to Stark, the conservancy holds, manages, and restores the dunes. It operates with $9 million designated as restoration funds and applies for government and private funds for land management and enhancement.

The Land Conservancy works with land management in other parts of the county as well as the dunes.

Different from the Land Conservancy, the local Sierra Club is involved in

conservation issues dealing with changes in land use policies, maintaining coastal access, preserving agricultural and open space, transportation, and building sustainable communities. The club is very protective of the dunes and other coastal environments.

The see-saw balancing between business interests like Unocal and environmental groups like the Sierra Club for the economic gain of the county and its quality of life now rests on whether Unocal will make good on its settlement to cleanup its mess. Will it?

"Yes," said Pat Veesart, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County. Veesart speaks with two hats. He also is chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission which wrote the plan for Unocal's cleanup that was approved by the California Coastal Commission, which included bulldozing the dunes.

"We were put in a horrible position. We have to destroy the dunes to save the dunes," Veesart said. "We don't know how many millions of gallons of oil are in the dunes. The only way to get it out is dig it out."

Veesart said the final plan with Unocal and the state was a compromise. He said the main focus was to keep the oil out of the marine environment. "There's a lot at stake here, for if the contamination got into our deep water sources, the economic implications would be far reaching for the population's water supply, the valley's agriculture, and for marine life."


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