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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ALBUM

Avila Beach Prepares for Oil Cleanup

Quaint seaside town will undergo $16.5-million project by Unocal to replace crude-soaked earth. Residents worry that they will not be able to return to rebuilt community.


AVILA BEACH, Calif. — Like Middle East oil barons, the people of this quaint beach town find themselves sitting atop a petrochemical bonanza, a layer of crude that could guarantee a prosperous future for their community.

Already, the oil giant Unocal has delivered a check to Avila Beach for $3 million, a healthy sum when you stop to consider that the town has but 400 residents. And there's more money--a lot more--on its way.

Not everyone in Avila Beach is happy about this, however.

"It's a funky town," explained Saro Rizzo, an attorney and Avila Beach resident. "People want to keep it that way."

The oil underneath Avila Beach isn't destined to become gasoline or diesel fuel or anything useful--it leaked from underground pipelines and is contaminating the soil. Last June, as part of a legal settlement, Unocal agreed to clean up the mess, rebuild structures, and pay $16.5 million for civic improvements.

After the last shovelful of oily earth is hauled away, a new Avila Beach will rise from this sunbaked stretch of coastline just south of San Luis Obispo.

Unfortunately, there's a catch: No one can guarantee that there will be room for every Avila Beach resident in the rebuilt community.

"I think it's going to be so disruptive to the whole town," says Dan Woolard, a member of the town's San Luis Yacht Club. "I don't think it'll ever get to what it was."

The old Avila Beach was a working man's paradise, happily frozen in time circa 1960. It was a picturesque slice of California beach without any of the exclusivity of, say, Malibu or Carmel. It was a place where a retiree on a fixed income could find an affordable home just yards from the beach.

The conundrum Avila Beach faces is how to spend the money it has coming and still keep the town's identity as a haven for the everyman. People here have a name for their greatest fear of what their town might become. They almost spit when they say it: Newport Beach.

"I'm sure it's going to look pretty, but a lot of the character of this place is the people," said Monica Davies, 45, who, like many in Avila Beach, is a former Angeleno.

The cleanup got underway late last month, with several businesses along Front Street, the city's main drag, closing up shop and boarding their windows. Unocal will begin excavating the contaminated soil later this year, removing about 300,000 cubic yards of earth. The oil company says it has worked hard to minimize disruption caused by the cleanup.

About five city blocks will be demolished, including the heart of Avila's small commercial district. Unocal has purchased many of the lots in the affected area from owners who took lucrative offers from the oil company, rather than live through what promises to be a long and messy cleanup process.

Already, Davies has been evicted from a series of apartments as the owners have sold their properties. Unocal even owns the lot where she works, the Avila Grocery, having paid more than $800,000 for the small property.

"I'm grateful for the time I had here," said Davies, who now lives in an Avila Beach trailer park.

Davies works the front counter at the grocery, a gathering spot for natives and tourists alike. It's a place to talk about the latest news, or just to watch the saffron sun dip below the shimmering blue horizon. Not even the old Unocal wharf ruins the view.

For much of this century, Unocal and its predecessors operated oil facilities at Avila Beach. Tankers docked at the wharf, taking in crude and other oil products pumped in from the San Joaquin Valley. At its peak, 2 million barrels of oil were being loaded onto ships each month.

The pipelines and huge storage tanks gave Avila Beach an identity apart from most of the seaside resorts that dot the coast from La Jolla north. The oil facilities chased away the chichi clientele. But they didn't bother the working families from Fresno, Bakersfield and other San Joaquin Valley cities who made up the bulk of the tourist trade.

Unique Town Readies Itself

A series of building moratoriums has prevented new construction in the town for three decades--first because of a water shortage, then because the oil contamination was discovered underground.

"I grew up here and I haven't seen the town change much," said Matthew Farmer, 32. "It's a real eclectic-type town. . . . People come here for the uniqueness and for the micro-climate."

For decades, the Lighthouse Bar catered to bikers, among others. The site is boarded up now, slated to be demolished as part of the cleanup. When the pub held a farewell party last month, the regulars covered the walls with graffiti, including limericks, poems, a few ribald drawings and the winged-wheel symbol of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"We sat in here and drank our beer / and hung out with our friends," one patron wrote. "Unocal's tearing down our beautiful town / but here the party never ends."

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