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The path of least resistance 

Citizens complain that corporate money paved the way for Chevron in Santa Barbara County

Restaurateur Larry Haro remembers when downtown Guadalupe hosted a vibrant scene.

"It was a very prosperous community," Haro said. "We had restaurants, movie theaters, pool halls there was a lot to do."

A vintage snapshot of Guadalupe's main drag from the 1950s or

click to enlarge WHAT THE TRUCK? :  Due to stage one of the Chevron project and another project taking soil dredged from the Santa Maria River up Hwy. 1 to Lompoc Guadalupe has all the truck traffic it can handle. The Chevron trucks carry a standard-dumping single load, while the others sport double bottom-dumping trailers. - PHOTO BY PATRICK KLEMZ
  • PHOTO BY PATRICK KLEMZ
  • WHAT THE TRUCK? : Due to stage one of the Chevron project and another project taking soil dredged from the Santa Maria River up Hwy. 1 to Lompoc Guadalupe has all the truck traffic it can handle. The Chevron trucks carry a standard-dumping single load, while the others sport double bottom-dumping trailers.
# '60s typically reveals a bounty of pedestrian and vehicular traffic flowing through a channel of mixed-use development. Chicano and Filipino residents maintained a commercial corridor ripe with style and dominated by family-owned businesses. A petroleum-processing facility across the river provided a significant source of employment.

In the half-century since its modest beginnings as a camp for the Southern Pacific Railroad, the city flowered into an active and upwardly mobile ethnic stronghold in the otherwise whitewashed Central Coast.

These days, however, Guadalupe looks more like a ghost town. Little passes through, except for a steady column of trucks filled with supplies heading down the coast.

By some accounts, a series of drug and prostitution raids in the 1970s tarnished the city's reputation and sparked the decline.

"It happened pretty much every time there was a sheriff's election in Santa Barbara," longtime resident and historical society volunteer John Perry recalled.

More accurately, though, the cause of the decline proved less salacious. The Unocal Corp. oil processing facility sputtered out after regulators discovered an on-site petrochemical leak. It eventually closed to much ado. Nearby Santa Maria boomed and Guadalupe residents began commuting there for goods and employment.

"People stopped supporting the town," Perry said.

Downtown Guadalupe managed to draw less revenue, the tax base failed to pace the population growth, and the municipal coffers reflected that state of affairs.

So when petroleum giant Chevron offered to pitch the little coastal town roughly $1.4 million for firefighters, stoplights, and park space, Mayor Lupe Alvarez and the City Council gladly accepted the gift. In an unofficial exchange, Guadalupe residents and businesses would have to put up with a smidge of traffic: nearly 20,000 dump truck passes a year, for five years, carrying diluent-soaked sand from the largest oil spill site in American history.

 

Complaints emerge late in the game
Beyond the generous funding package, the prompt cleansing of the nearby county-straddling Nipomo-Guadalupe Dunes, according to Mayor Alvarez, fit well into Guadalupe's plan to establish itself as a destination for eco-tourists.

California-based Chevron purchased Unocal Corp. and the responsibility of cleaning up the spill site along with it in 2005. The oil corporation needed Guadalupe as a segue to truck the roughly 860,000 cubic yards of polluted soil to county highways leading to a landfill east of Hwy. 101.

Meanwhile, Guadalupe and Santa Maria profited from the operation, as did Santa Barbara County to the tune of roughly $5.4 million in road repairs and mitigation for depositing the fill. The landfill operators fixed to use the material to cap and permanently seal the site.

After approval by two county boards, two city councils, and the California Coastal Commission, the massive endeavor commenced late last month. With the polluted dunes on a 16-mile road to recovery, it appeared as though all parties managed to strike a mutually beneficial deal.

If only things could be so perfect.
Residents along the trucking route which, incidentally, changed a few times during the planning phase objected to the purported lack of environmental impact considerations. One group of Santa Marians even appealed to the Coastal Commission in June, planning to use the anticipated denial as a springboard to litigation. Grievances with the project among northern Santa Barbara County residents included:

- an alleged shortfall of environmental impact studies delving the potential effects of diluents leached into the groundwater table

- insufficient analysis of the traffic impact on county and city roads.

- air quality concerns arising from the sheer number of trucks employed in the project.

Retired Santa Maria attorney Daniel Kirk told New Times immediately after the denial of the appeal that he planned to pursue litigation, but members of his group have since indicated that they lacked the funding to take a legal road. Kirk was not available to comment for this story.

San Luis Obispo County District 4 Supervisor Katcho Achadjian also a delegate to the powerful California Coastal Commission shepherded the project through the various regulatory phases. Plainly and simply, he sought to expedite the process of cleaning the 54-year-old spill site still sullying his district.

"Where were they when we were talking about this?" Achadjian retorted in response to the recent crop of vocal activists. He went on to address the alleged shortcomings of the efforts to study the environmental impact of the project: "The matter was reviewed by several boards, including the Coastal Commission, where the Sierra Club is basically the name of the game."

Opponents of the project maintain, however, that therein dwells that elusive catch. Had the governing bodies better notified residents, they argued, more would have come out to voice concerns. As it stood, a few vocal opponents made it to various meetings but not enough to prompt the Santa Barbara County supervisors to deny the road permits.

 

Public disinformation?
Kirk along with ticked Santa Maria residents Ray Alexander, Thomas Gibbons, and David White ultimately filed the appeal, not based on the supposed environmental impact report shortfalls, but rather on a purported failure to inform the public during the negotiation process. Kirk claimed that the lack of notice in local publications kept the greater public interest machine garaged.

To comply with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) public information requirements, San Luis Obispo County staff printed notices in the Tribune, based out of San Luis Obispo not Santa Barbara County, where the vast majority of the route runs.

Chevron eventually printed notices in the Santa Maria Times regarding the project's commencement, but after the proposal gained final approval. Project manager Gonzolo Garcia stated that the responsibility of printing the notices, in compliance with CEQA, was a requirement that San Luis Obispo County technically met.

"That wasn't Chevron or Unocal's burden," he said. "I'm not going to say it was the perfect process, but they complied."

Kirk contested this point. CEQA stipulates that "when multiple areas are affected, the notice shall be published in the newspaper of largest circulation" in the general area. In effect, Kirk asserted, the Santa Barbara News-Press proved the more apropos choice of publication.

Planning staffer John Nall, who recommended the denial of an earlier nearly identical appeal to the SLO County supervisors, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Whatever the case, the wide-scale public outrage that some anticipated never materialized.

Former Santa Barbara County supe Toru Miyoshi chalked the indifference up to a lack of disclosure, as well as a general North County stigma relating to matters that the general populace might perceive as "environmental bellyaching."

Miyoshi and other residents also accused Guadalupe's Mayor Alvarez and even Santa Maria's Mayor Larry Lavagnino of negotiating with Chevron behind closed doors.

"Here the oil companies gouge us at the pump and then throw around all this money to get their way," Miyoshi said.

"When you have approval from Fish & Game, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Coastal Commission, and the county supervisors every single one of those entities have public meetings," Alvarez responded. "Where is the closed door?"

 

Land, land everywhere, and not a place to dump
Naturally, all of this also begs the question of what other options remained for Santa Barbara County, which only begrudgingly accepted the deal after Santa Maria pledged to maintain Hwy. 166.

Frustration over a lack of options seemed palpable at the Santa Barbara County supervisors meeting where the plan received the final go-ahead. According to District 4 supervisor Joni Gray, had the board turned down the permits to use county roads, Chevron would have simply and legally run the diluent up state highways to the landfill. That potential route would have, obtrusively, run up Main Street in Santa Maria.

"We were way down the food chain on the Guadalupe decision," Gray said. "We really had no say other than to set the route."

When the matter actually reached the Santa Barbara County supervisors, only two other regional landfills appeared ready to accept the waste: the Clean Harbors Buttonwillow Landfill and the McKittrick Waste Treatment Site both in western Kern County. In addition to a complete reset of the bureaucratic mechanism, the mere notion of trucking 860,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil through San Luis and up Hwy. 58 to the valley would more than slightly ruffle the feathers of local environmental factions.

"You can basically take the Santa Maria reaction and multiply it by 100," local Sierra Club spokesman Andrew Christie said of the SLO-to-Kern County alternative.

That proposal, nevertheless, landed on the SLO County agenda just days before the Santa Barbara County board voted on the more-developed plan. It disappeared not long after the final approval.

"Disposal at the Santa Maria Landfill is considered the primary means of off-site disposal for Chevron, and approval of the proposed amendment is considered a contingency plan," the agenda read.

The contingency plan seemed more like a pipedream, but was it also a flounce to push the project ahead?

"We're not that smart to manipulate political winds," Chevron's Garcia joked. "This is not a voluntary project. We are under a compliance order. If the southern route was closed off, then we had no choice but to look at other options.

"Honestly, we didn't expect to have the problems that we had in Santa Maria."

Staff writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at pklemz@newtimesslo.com.

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