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A Long-Buried Oil Spill Casts Beach Town Adrift : Pollution: Unocal is removing tainted soil from Avila Beach, but business district may go with it.


AVILA BEACH, Calif. — All Mike Rudd wanted to do was build a commercial building in the heart of this quaint, dilapidated beach town. But when he struck oil, his hope of revitalizing the town was doomed.

Rudd, the owner of an Avila Beach bikini shop, discovered oil that had leaked for decades from Unocal Corp. pipelines running under the main street of town. As it turned out, more than 22,000 gallons of crude oil, diesel fuel and gasoline had quietly contaminated the soil and ground water beneath the business district of this seaside haven, eight miles south of San Luis Obispo.

Unocal, whose hilltop tank farm looms over Avila Beach like a medieval castle, bought Rudd's land and began cleaning up the spill. The oil giant acknowledges responsibility for the spill, which it knew of as far back as 1977, but predicts that it will be at least five years and perhaps far longer before the mess under the town and its popular beach is finally cleaned up.

"They knew oil was seeping down here and they didn't say anything to anybody," Rudd said as he looked out on his old property, fenced and vacant. "The thing that makes me the most mad is they haven't done anything about it."

The spill has brought commercial development and real estate transactions to a virtual standstill because banks will not lend money on the contaminated property. Some townspeople worry that the spill may pose a health risk, although Unocal and health officials say there is no known danger.

Worse yet, complete decontamination confronts the town with perhaps the ultimate irony: Local merchants fear that the most thorough cleanup--removal of the tainted soil--could mean demolition of the four-block business district and the destruction of their livelihoods.

"It's basically killed the town is what it's done," said Jim Cumming, owner of the Avila Pizza Pantry, half a block from the beach. "The only way to clean it up is to dig up the whole town."

For Unocal, the contamination at Avila Beach is yet another black mark on its record of operations on the Central Coast. In March, the Los Angeles-based company disclosed that it was responsible for the largest oil spill in state history: as much as 8.5 million gallons of petroleum thinner that leaked into the ocean and ground water from pipes at its Guadalupe oil field, 15 miles south of Avila Beach.

Throughout California, state officials say, leaks from underground pipelines have come to pose a major oil pollution threat, causing spills on land, in creeks and rivers, and in the ocean.

"It's a big problem because what you've got is a very antiquated infrastructure of pipelines in California and they're not holding," said Steve Sawyer, an attorney with the state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. "We're dealing with pipes that have been buried for 40 or 50 years. After a while, corrosion sets in and you get breaks."

Responsibility for monitoring more than 8,000 miles of buried petroleum pipelines is divided among various state agencies, and some leaks go undetected or unreported for years. State officials cannot say for sure how many pipeline breaks occur, but estimate that there are hundred of leaks, large and small, each year.

Just since January, 1993, more than 800,000 gallons of petroleum products have spilled from ruptured pipelines into such sensitive locations as the Santa Clara River near Valencia, McGrath Lake near Oxnard, School Canyon Creek in Ventura and Grapevine Creek near Ft. Tejon.

There also have been major pipeline breaks in residential areas, including a 1989 gasoline leak that exploded and killed two people in San Bernardino and a 1988 rupture that spilled more than 130,000 gallons of oil onto city streets in Encino and Sherman Oaks.

This month, Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that would strengthen inspection and reporting requirements for underground pipelines.

State Resources Secretary Douglas Wheeler, concerned that the state's aging network of pipelines will lead to further catastrophes, said he will seek additional measures to improve spill prevention and emergency response to land-based oil spills.

"There is a growing awareness of the seriousness of the environmental risk," Wheeler said. "We have only more of these incidents to expect. We have to be better equipped to predict them and, when they do occur, be better prepared to deal with the effects of a rupture."

The town of Avila Beach, with a population of just over 1,000, has long been dominated by the oil operations that surround it.

The tank farm on the hill above town is nearly a century old and was acquired by Unocal in 1906--in a card game, according to local legend. At the other end of town, the company built a pier where it loads and unloads petroleum products on tanker ships.

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