Mar 26

Don’t frack on me, lessons from Unocal’s Guadalupe pollution settlement

NOVEMBER 1997: The cleanup is in progress and crews hustle to shore up the beach against possible heavy surf erosion from El Niño.

What could be bad about a process called fracking?
Energy companies now wish they had come up with a less dirty sounding name for the process of hydraulic fracturing, using high pressure water, sand and chemicals to crack rocks and release natural gas.
I’m all for energy independence but I’m also in favor of responsible behavior, especially when our drinking water could be affected by those chemicals.
What chemicals you ask?
The energy companies won’t tell, citing proprietary secrets.
The California Legislature has drafted a bill that would make names of those chemicals public. If the gas drillers can’t reveal the recipe I would settle for the all executive officers of the energy companies drinking a tall glass of frack juice to start each day.
Sadly San Luis Obispo County has had a history with an oil company pumping chemicals underground to extract oil.
It wasn’t fracking, but the county does have the distinction of having a massive chemical spill underground, larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster, in fragile dune habitat.
The pollution led to what was described at the time as the California’s largest environmental settlement, $43.8 million dollars. This was just five weeks after Unocal had settled a similar suit over contamination at Avila Beach for $18 million.
You would think energy companies would act more carefully and think before fracking around.

July 22, 1998

Delicate Habitat: Part of the area contaminated at the Guadalupe Dunes can be seen in this Nov. 19, 1997 file photo. ©The Tribune/David Middlecamp

Fouled region faces decades of cleanup work

By David Sneed

The herculean task of cleaning up Unocal’s massive spill will take decades to complete.
The oil company plans to start the first phase this fall, but that will only take care of a tiny percentage of the contamination.
In April, Unocal agreed to embark on a five-year cleanup effort to remove 17 plumes that pose an immediate threat of polluting the ocean and the Santa Maria River. These plumes will be dug up and the contaminated sand hauled to a site where it will be cleaned through natural decomposition.

PUMPING: Oil wells operate in the Guadalupe oil field in January 1989.

The largest plume to be cleaned up during the first phase, called the 5X plume, has already leaked into the ocean and river and has been the subject of several emergency actions by Unocal to stop the leaks.
Unocal has also agreed to conduct studies over 10 years to develop innovative ways to cleanup the remainder of the spill. The cleanup techniques that will eventually be used at the oil field may not even have been invented yet.
The size of the spill — between 8.5 million and 20 million gallons — coupled with the fragile coastal dune habitat found at the oil field makes the cleanup project unique, said James Caruso, the county’s Guadalupe cleanup planner.
Diluent is similar to kerosene and diesel fuel and contains a variety of toxic compounds. The site contains 80 different plumes.
The largest is located beneath the field’s main diluent tank battery. It contains half of the diluent found at the field.
Digging such a large area of the oil field is considered prohibitively expensive and would damage the dune ecosystem. Unocal argues that fully excavating the oil field would cause more damage than the contamination itself.
Unocal wants to leave the main plumes in place while monitoring them to make sure they are not spreading. County and state officials agree that digging up the main plumes is not practical.
They have proposed a plan to inject hot water into the main plumes. The water would dissolve the contamination so it could be pumped out of the ground using a series of wells.
Unocal has criticized this method as being nearly as destructive as excavation. County and state water officials have agreed to leave decisions about how to fully clean up the oil field to a later date when more information is available.
Water officials are also concerned that the diluent could contaminate the groundwater aquifer of the Santa Maria Valley. A layer of clay and gravel that underlies the oil field has thus far prevented the diluent from reaching the deep aquifer.


1951: Unocal buys 51 percent interest in the Guadalupe oil field, where wells first started producing oil in 1948. Two years later, Unocal buys up the rest.
January 1988: Unocal makes its first report to state officials when employees note a petroleum smell on the beach next to the Guadalupe field. The source of the problem isn’t determined and the oil disappears from the water in a few days.
February 1990: Petroleum — later determined to be diluent, a kerosene solvent used to thin crude — is again spotted on the beach. Unocal temporarily shuts down production throughout the field and notifies regulatory agencies. Shortly later, wells in a portion of the field resume pumping, but diluent is no longer used.

JUNE 1990: Senior engineer Dawin Sainz shows how Unocal pumps a diluent into the oil well so the oil can be pumped out.

March 1990: A 1,000-foot-long barrier is buried in the beach to help prevent diluent that has leaked from pipelines seep into the ocean. Subsequent winter storms, however, prove the wall isn’t effective.
Fifteen wells are drilled to begin sucking the diluent from the ground.
June 30 and July 7, 1992: A former Unocal employee calls the Fish & Game Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response and says company workers have known of the diluent leaks for years but kept them secret.
July 1992: A dozen Fish & Game investigators use a search warrant to seize 25 boxes of files in an eight-hour raid on Unocal’s Orcutt offices. The search was to determine whether Unocal officials committed a felony by allowing oil to enter state waters and then failed to report it.
March 1993: Unocal drills more exploratory wells in inland portions of the field, discovering diluent in several other locations. By the end of 1993, testing reveals 28 plumes of diluent that have leaked from pipelines or storage tanks.
June 11, 1993: Fish & Game investigators serve a second search warrant on Unocal’s offices, and haul away 67 boxes of files.
July 1, 1993: Fish & Game investigators report at least 112 crude oil and diluent spills at the field, most of which were never reported, that could amount to 3.5 million gallons over a six-year period. Internal reports show Unocal employees kept records of daily spills as large as 50 to 200 barrels from the diluent lines between 1984 and 1990. Unocal had reported only 16.

"Unocal to pay $43.8 million for polluting fragile dunes"; Telegram-Tribune front page July 22, 1998.

July 1993: The San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office files 28 criminal charges against Unocal and six of its employees. The charges include allegations that more than 100 leaks of diluent went unreported since at least 1985. Unocal is also accused of polluting ground water and the ocean.
September 1993: The state Regional Water Quality Control Board votes to have the state attorney general pursue civil penalties against Unocal for the diluent leaks.
Jan. 4, 1994: Judge James Ream rules that prosecutors missed the deadline by two days to file several charges. The ruling, which followed a 21⁄2-day hearing, threatens the criminal case against Unocal.
Jan. 13, 1994: Prosecutors refile criminal charges against Unocal, and add several more.
March 15, 1994: Unocal pleads no contest to three criminal charges, including failing to report diluent leaks, and agrees to a $1.5 million cash settlement. All other charges are dismissed, including all charges against the six named employees.
Under the terms of the agreement, $1 million would go to the San Luis Obispo County General Fund; $300,000 toward a special trust fund for environmental projects and a $200,000 reimbursement to the state Department of Fish & Game for money spent dealing with the problems.
March 23, 1994: The state attorney general sues Unocal Corp. for unspecified damages.
November 1994: Unocal’s $300,000 paid to environmental projects as part of its legal settlement is divvied among 43 county groups. County supervisors distributed the $1 million payoff to the General Fund. More than half — $550,000 — went to five major projects. The District Attorney’s Office received $125,000 for legal expenses and supervisors split the remaining $325,000 among themselves to spend in their districts.
January 1995: Unocal donates $200,000 to the community of Guadalupe during the cleanup of a huge oil leak near the Santa Barbara County town of 6,000.
August 1995: Unocal Corp. reaches an agreement to sell all crude oil and natural gas holdings in California to Houston-based Torch Energy Advisors Inc. for $500 million.
Unocal says it won’t sell the Guadalupe oil field until the cleanup is complete.
July 1996: Unocal agrees to pay for a $1.8 million environmental study of its plan to clean up fouled Guadalupe oil fields in southern San Luis Obispo County. A recent study suggested almost 60 percent of the 2,700-acre field could be contaminated.
July 21, 1998: Attorney General Dan Lungren announces a $43.8 million settlement with Unocal Corp. for oil pollution contamination that had occurred at Unocal’s Guadalupe oil field over the past 40 years.

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