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Lack of Water Stalls Avila’s Recovery From Oil Cleanup

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They’ve discovered a new leak in Avila Beach, but this time, the problem isn’t oil--it’s water.

The Central Coast community, site of one of the worst environmental disasters in California history when leaking oil pipes were discovered beneath its downtown, is on the brink of rebirth after years of cleanup.

The contaminated soil has been trucked away, the streets are freshly paved, and building permits are waiting to be issued.

But even as its oil spill problems are finally resolved, the little town has a new woe: a water shortage that prevents reconstruction. And until that’s settled, Avila’s 4-square-block downtown, long a favorite spot for Central Coast beachgoers, is destined to remain as empty as it is right now.

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Late last week, state and local officials said they were making progress toward a possible solution to the water problem, but Avila residents remain frustrated.

“After what the town has been through, the delays are just unbelievable for everyone here,” said Seamus Slattery, a resident and writer who has been pushing for a solution.

The story of the latest setback for the quirky town of about 300 residents is rooted deep in its troubled history. Since a vast pool of oil was discovered under Avila in 1989, 200,000 tons of contaminated soil have been dug up and taken away, along with nearly all the structures in its miniature business district.

Oil giant Unocal, whose leaking pipelines were responsible for the years of pollution, has paid out well over $100 million in cleanup bills and legal settlements to state agencies, residents and business owners, according to various estimates.

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Yet all the legal wrangling left behind a tangled web of authorities overseeing the town and its long-awaited renewal. That complicates resolution of the water shortage.

The problem is twofold: Not only is one of Avila’s two water tanks leaking and beyond repair, but existing water storage capacity is substantially less than fire codes require for the buildings planned for the new downtown.

Officials say there is enough water to meet the needs of the town’s current residents, but not enough for the tourists expected to frequent the new restaurants, shops and hotels.

To meet state fire codes for the new buildings, the town must replace its old, leaky tank with a new 500,000-gallon tank and install a larger water main--all at a cost of $600,000 or more.

Until that’s done, San Luis Obispo County planning officials say, they cannot issue building permits to property owners, many of whom are ready to begin construction.

“It’s complicated and very emotional for all the people of Avila because they thought there was finally an end point here,” said senior planner James Caruso.

The question has been who should pay for the new tank and line. At a series of meetings in the fall, many residents argued that the money should come from funds Unocal paid to the state Department of Fish and Game to help mitigate the disaster.

That agency initially said no. Staff counsel Stephen Sawyer said the $6 million the department received was to help the area’s vegetation and wildlife recover from the spill, with the rest intended for projects to make up for the loss to the public of a popular beach.

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A few weeks ago, however, the department agreed to help solve the water problem. But its offer, of a $320,000 grant plus a $320,000 loan, was turned down.

Now, Sawyer said, Fish and Game is increasing the grant offer to $500,000.

State Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo), whose office was involved in the discussions, said he hopes it will bring the town’s travails to an end.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Problems in Avila Beach

The rebuilding of Avila Beach, site of one of the worst pollution disasters in the West, has run into delays with the discovery of a leaking water tank and water storage capacity insufficient for the town’s new buildings.

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