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Setbacks Slow Cleanup of Huge Oil Spill : Environment: Unocal and state agencies deny charges that they have bungled the massive project near a beach in San Luis Obispo County.

October 11, 1994|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GUADALUPE, Calif. — What was once a beautiful sandy beach is now a huge pit of tainted water, dubbed Lake Unocal by cleanup crews. Nearby, enough contaminated sand has been piled in giant mounds to fill a line of dump trucks 67 miles long.

These are the signs of progress in the massive effort to clean up California's biggest oil spill--which Unocal Corp. has admitted was the result of leaking underground pipes and mismanagement at its Guadalupe oil field south of San Luis Obispo.

But despite the company's $12-million commitment to the emergency effort, the month-old cleanup has suffered a series of setbacks--including the discovery of three times as much contaminated sand as originally expected. Now, the project has fallen so far behind schedule it is threatened by coming winter storms.

Local officials, the Sierra Club and other environmental critics contend that the cleanup has been bungled by Unocal and the government agencies overseeing it: the U.S. Coast Guard and the state Department of Fish and Game.

They maintain that the cleanup method being used will not remove all the contamination from the beach and could cause greater problems by damaging nearby sand dunes. Some critics contend that it represents the worst blemish on Gov. Pete Wilson's environmental record during his four years in office.

"I'm convinced that the cure is worse than the disease, and I believe it is because of political motivations that this cure was chosen," said San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Bud Laurent, a former biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

But state and federal officials maintain that the emergency cleanup has been a success so far and deny that politics has played any part in the operation.

They concede that there is no way that they can meet their original Oct. 15 deadline for cooking the oil out of the sand, putting the clean sand back in the pit and installing a permanent underground barrier to stop pollution from reaching the ocean.

But they say their aggressive effort to dig up the plume of petroleum thinner that once flowed under the beach has succeeded in preventing the kind of leaks into the ocean that have plagued the site for at least eight years.

"You've got to get this stuff out of the environment and keep it from entering marine waters," said Fish and Game lawyer Steve Sawyer. "We would think the rapid removal of the material would be the environmentalist position."

Added state Resources Agency spokesman Andy McLeod: "Nobody has proposed any other alternative to deal with the immediate threat. The idea that this (method of cleanup) could be done for political reasons is ludicrous."

Along the Central Coast, there is widespread anger at Unocal for polluting the ocean and ground water at a variety of locations and then not telling the public. In some quarters, any action that Unocal takes is greeted with skepticism, if not outright hostility.

At the aging oil field amid the Guadalupe dunes, Unocal has admitted leaking as much as 8.5 million gallons of diluent, a petroleum thinner used to help pump heavy crude out of the ground.

"The diluent shouldn't be there, and we're justifiably criticized for the fact that it's there," said Unocal President John Imle in a telephone interview from Indonesia. "No matter how we try to fix it, there are going to be some people who are going to criticize it."

Company officials have been embarrassed by revelations that employees failed to report spills as required by law and actively sought to cover up the incidents as far back as 1978.

Earlier this year, Unocal pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor pollution charges and was fined $1.5 million. The company apologized for its actions and promised to clean up the mess.

Unocal's cover-up was disclosed after a lengthy investigation by the Department of Fish and Game. The state is suing Unocal for more than $500 million for spilling diluent into the ocean and ground water and then failing to take proper action.

"We stuck our neck out a long time ago to make people realize this is one of the biggest environmental cases of all time," said Sawyer, the Fish and Game lawyer.

So far, 31 separate plumes of contamination have been found on the site.

Much of the spilled diluent is floating on ground water beneath the oil field. However, one plume that flows steadily to the ocean has been responsible for repeated marine spills dating back at least to 1986.

During winter storms, when the water table is high and waves wash away much of the beach sand, the plume of smelly petroleum fluid flows into the ocean, contaminating fish and posing a health hazard to people, state officials say.

Attempts to stop the migrating diluent, including construction of an underground barrier and the installation of wells on the beach to pump out the fluid, were unsuccessful.

After a series of spills in January and April, the U.S. Coast Guard, state officials and Unocal agreed that it was time to take emergency action to prevent further pollution of the ocean.

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