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Recovery From an Historic Event

After petroleum products leaked from pipelines beneath Avila Beach, California for decades, the coastal port town embarked on a massive cleanup of epic proportions and today finds itself striving for normalcy and its identity

By Barbara Wolcott

Walking down the main street through Avila Beach, a small town along the coast of California half way between Los Angeles and San Jose, you find palm trees lining a promenade laid out with bricks in creative curvy patterns. Trendy shops and restaurants with colorful facades invite pedestrians strolling by.

But if you talk to a local resident, you’ll soon learn downtown Avila beach hasn’t always been such a bucolic place. In the 1990s, engineers partnered with a multitude of regulatory agencies to accomplish an environmental cleanup that set a new standard for the petroleum industry. And now, the town is emerging from the cleanup, and the rebuilding that accompanied it, to put on a pretty face and reestablish its identity.

As chief administrative planner and engineer for San Luis Obispo County, David Church remembers the enormous emotional impact the undertaking had on the town. “The Avila cleanup project changed not only the town of Avila Beach in a dramatic way, it changed the course of many lives. I have never felt so overwhelmed by a project, yet supported by so many excellent professionals and friends. The people in Avila endured a great hardship to clean up the town. Looking back, it was the best of times and the worst of times.”

It all traces back many decades to Unocal, the petroleum giant founded in the late 1800s and known at one time as Union Oil Company. The company became a major part of the economic fabric of California’s Central Coast. Just prior to World War II, its Avila Beach operations made the tiny town the world’s largest oil port.

For 100 years, oil pumped from fields in central and coastal California — in some cases several hundred miles away — was piped to huge tanks atop a bluff overlooking Avila Beach. Crude oil, gasoline, and diesel fuel flowed downhill from that storage facility, through pipelines under the town, and out the company pier to waiting tanker ships for transport. Over time, the pipelines leaked, and a huge spill of petroleum products on the order of a half million gallons developed under Avila Beach and began moving toward the ocean.

Church was one of the first involved when the spill began to rear its ugly head. In 1988, a business owner tried to expand his building and found the lot so heavily pooled with gasoline beneath the surface that testing engineers feared if anyone lit a cigarette, they would all be blown away. In 1977, just such an explosion occurred in the same area when two college students painting their basement apartment were blasted out a window after the pilot on a water heater ignited fumes. Church connected the two events and became certain the gases had to come from the same source — pipelines under the street.

Home to fewer than 400 people, Avila Beach has traditionally consisted of a broad range of residents with strong connections to the town and region, including fourth-generation settler families. The first indication of the difficulty lying ahead in reaching cleanup was the fact that many residents were long-time Unocal employees, creating an impossible split in loyalty to home and economics.

Seeking Consensus
Social impact took a back seat temporarily to the work of geologists and hydrologists for Unocal, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, and the county in attempting to determine the extent of the underground pool. Attorneys and company engineers looked at evidence differently, resulting in a standoff with Church. Unocal insisted the most logical remedy required a soil vapor extraction system consisting of a series of wells to vacuum the gases out for safe combustion. But Church disagreed. “The vapor extraction system may have done its job that way, but it didn’t deal at all with the rest of the contamination.”

Church got the equivalent of another college education in short order, testing his credibility as well as his professional background. Opposing counsel and company engineering experts questioned his testing, his conclusions, and assessment of the problem. He had to learn to lawyerspeak and get through to a petroleum industry with a long history of professional success in the oil fields.

David Church wasn’t the only professional to face the challenge of determining the extent of the contamination and getting Unocal to clean it up. After a series of part-time engineers worked on the Avila Beach contamination, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board assigned engineering geologist Gerhardt Hubner fulltime to the problem. Hubner represented the primary agency responsible for getting the cleanup done, and he faced the same tough scrutiny Church did from the Unocal legal team.

To complicate matters, local professionals in the field were joined by soils and administrative professionals from a plethora of county, state, and federal agencies, each with different mandates. Sometimes their respective agency policies conflicted with one another. For example, the Regional Water Quality Control Board regulates water, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also has responsibility for any projects up to the mean high tide line. With the underground spill crossing that dividing line, each agency had to determine how to work with the others to see it cleaned up.

San Luis Obispo County staff negotiated with Unocal for testing to determine the extent of the oil spill under the sand and a plan for cleanup. But after six years, the problem still stood at square one, without any clear idea of how much was involved and what should be done about it.

As the argument grew more and more heated in conference chambers, a new wrinkle emerged on the side seeking to get the town cleaned up. Saro Rizzo, a young attorney with the ink barely dry on his diploma, lived in Avila Beach and kept close track of events as they unfolded. He finally realized another generation could pass before anything productive came of the confrontational situation. He decided to file suit — his first ever.

Rizzo filed a unique kind of suit by forming a small non-profit organization called the Avila Alliance. His group held a series of meetings to acquaint residents with the nuts and bolts of the problem and explain the ramifications of suggestions offered by Unocal and responses from the agencies. Rizzo’s suit not only got the attention of Unocal, it also eventually brought in the state attorney general’s office as party to the legal action.

While the legal battle heated up, Church and Hubner realized the embattled Unocal was playing one agency against another. To meet the challenge, they helped put together a Coalition of government agencies from the county, state and federal levels involved.

Responsibility for ocean beaches is invested in a long list of federal, state, and county jurisdictions, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the California State Lands Commission and the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors among many others. The amount of education and discussion it took to meet the problem was breathtaking. Many days, Church and Hubner spent time just talking with the people and listening to their concerns. After a number of unproductive meetings, the Unocal lead attorney sent his entire legal team on a skiing trip and negotiated a settlement himself, quickly and amicably. The cleanup would follow in short order.

Innovative Plan Saves Time
Once the decision to clean up the underground plumes of crude oil, gasoline, diesel fuel, and other petroleum products was made in 1998, Unocal made industry history by creating a revolutionary plan for carrying it out. Jacobs Engineering Group worked with Unocal to develop a never-before-used method of digging, testing, and replacing in sequence. A multi-billion dollar company, Jacobs Engineering provides engineering, construction, operations, and maintenance services to industrial, commercial, and government clients. Headquartered in Pasadena, California, it has over 60 offices worldwide.

In preparation for the job, the little town’s homes and businesses above the massive leak had to be completely torn down or removed and then replaced later. Once building deconstruction was complete and utilities moved aside to continue functioning, actual digging to the plume began. Sheet pile was used to keep the underground fluids contained and later the soft sand from caving into the dig. Each three-foot-wide section, weighing from 4000 to 6000 pounds and measuring 45 to 65 feet top to bottom, was driven into the ground with one section nested into an adjoining one all around to form a cofferdam.

Work progressed slowly due to the danger of fire from the oil soaked dirt. The action of driving the metal sheets into the ground caused a build-up of heat in the pit and no sparks could be tolerated. Many of the pipes had be hand cut. The pounding of sheet pile caused collateral damage to buildings nearby and houses began to shift. Jacobs’s workers had to deal with the consternation of residents as well as a steady parade of sightseers coming from miles around to watch the deconstruction.

During the digging, freed petroleum products mixed with the water table, and the floating oil was suctioned off and then separated for transport out of town. Sand at the bottom of the lagoon that formed in the enormous hole was dredged up and cleansed in machines that shook and blew out the oil products that could be recycled or transported to the state toxics repository for hydrocarbon wastes.

Typically, a dig of this nature involves complete removal of the soil overburden for the entire site, followed by excavation of all the contaminated soil, and then replacement of clean sand. But in this case, Jacobs and Unocal improvised a train sequence for the nine-acre site by dividing the excavation into six cells in sequence. The sheet pile used in Cell 1 was pulled out when that part of the dig was complete, then reinstalled in the adjoining area, following a sequence of digging and filling from one end to the other.

Thousands of truckloads of contaminated sand from the beach were trucked out and clean material trucked in. Some of the contaminated material was taken to Unocal property, where it was spread so the petroleum could evaporate naturally. Contaminated dirt was dumped onto a paved area nearby to drain and then loaded into trucks for transport to an interim exchange area at the Tank Farm on the bluff. A canopy over the transfer operation covered huge piles of soiled sand placed on paved areas, where it was tested and then left to ooze petroleum products into a paved drainage system. The sand was later loaded onto long haul double tandem trucks for transfer to a state-sanctioned environmental dump. Ultimately, it is expected all the sand will be reused for road construction.

With this procedure, Unocal cleaned up the majority of the huge spill, finishing in 2000. Their method cut the time to do the job from an expected five years to less than two. An underground plume remains under the beach in the intertidal zone and will be monitored for movement.

A Town Rebuilds
With the cleanup complete, Avila Beach began slowly rebuilding after Unocal paid for extensive beachfront remodeling in the streets, parking, and access to the water and bought some properties outright and settled privately with other property owners.

The funky little beach businesses and everything that made the old town unique have vanished, but the town’s business district is rising from the ashes. Residents were given wide latitude in determining what the reborn town would be, from the type of street trees and restrooms, to the park at the end of the road next to the beach. The new public promenade is pedestrian friendly, and people still come to visit, stroll the beach, talk about the massive cleanup, and revel in this extraordinary hideaway heaven.

Now that they’ve had time to reflect on the cleanup operation, San Luis Obispo County agencies offer uniform praise of Unocal for their efforts, once the fight was settled. “They did a terrific job,” says Hubner. In the mid-1990s, the company closed its operations in the region and sold the majority of its assets.

Hubner says he learned two major things from the project: “You can make a difference, and truth will prevail … eventually.” He also found it immensely satisfying to meet the challenge with multifaceted professionals in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It’s rare to actually see a project come to a decision and result in a benefit to the community and the environment.”

Nowhere else has anything like this been done for an environmental disaster. While the case never went to court or set legal precedents, it did establish an industry standard. This improbable band of engineers from an incredible array of specialties and responsibilities joined with residents young and old to win a massive environmental battle that had extraordinary closure.


Barbara Wolcott is a freelance writer in San Luis Obispo, California. She has written a book on the Avila Beach cleanup, David, Goliath and the Beach-Cleaning Machine, published by Capital Books.


Progressive Engineer
Editor: Tom Gibson
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©2004 Progressive Engineer