Oil Sure Can Make a Mess of the Coast

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

In 1969 the Santa Barbara oil spill occurred when an offshore oil well blew out, dumping 4.2 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific. Beaches turned black and were littered with dead birds. No waves rose from the black shiny water. It was eight months before anyone could use the beach again. This isolated incident created plenty of momentum for voters passing the Coastal Protection Initiative three years later, and California has not yet had such a massive spill again.

Petroleum is toxic, however, and California pumps and refines plenty of it.

In 1990 the central coast learned that Unocal’s Guadalupe Oil Field, within a mile of the beach and the CCT in southern San Luis Obispo County, had been leaking petroleum thinner, or diluent, into the Nipomo Dunes beneath it. Over the next four years it came to light that Unocal officials knew of the leaks but failed to report them. Then three experts hired by Unocal estimated the spill at between 4.6 million and 8.5 million gallons, larger than the 1969 spill and possibly twice the size. Once Unocal officials admitted to the scale of the spill, it became clear that the leaks had been occurring over 15 years. They were fined $1.5 million. Efforts to clean up the underground leaks have recovered about a million gallons of diluent, with most of the rest dispersed along the nearby coast and ocean. The Guadalupe Oil Field is surrounded by the Nature Conservancy’s Nipomo Dunes Preserve.

In 1989 an Avila Beach merchant began excavating to expand his small business, but he found oil flowing under the town’s main street. The discovery did not make him wealthy. A Unocal oil tank facility crowns the hill above town. When Unocal officials were confronted with the mess, they acknowledged responsibility and admitted knowing of the spill since 1977. In 1994, after further investigation, Unocal estimated the spill to be 22,000 gallons and 100 feet deep. In autumn 1998, Unocal began cleaning up the spill in the only way possible. They tore down the four blocks of the small town’s business district and began digging down 40 to 60 feet to remove 100,000 cubic yards of oil-soaked sand. Estimates now place the spill at 400,000 gallons of diesel, crude oil and gasoline, with estimated final costs exceeding $200 million. The town of Avila Beach hopes to reopen in summer 2000 after ten years of anguish and a year of complete shutdown. As one merchant said, “It’s basically killed the town is what it’s done.” But the story goes on. Unocal has been buying up the beachfront property as it cleans up. Long-time residents and visitors suspect that the oil giant will sell the prime land to developers, who will then build high rises there, turning funky Avila Beach into another Newport Beach.

Responsibility for monitoring California’s more than 8000 miles of buried petroleum pipelines is divided among several state agencies and some leaks are not fixed for years. “You’ve got a very antiquated infrastructure of pipelines in California and they’re not holding,” said Steve Sawyer of 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.”

These are only three of the many sobering stories about the messy side of oil and its toll on human and natural resources. Is petroleum’s next assault on California’s coast waiting to happen or already lying buried beneath the surface?

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume Two: Monterey to Mexico by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols