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The search for contamination source continues with Buckley Road residents footing the bill 

In real life, things are often messier than a CSI episode purports them to be, and mysteries of all kinds can drag out for months or years without a satisfying resolution.

That appears to be case for tracking down just who is responsible for the toxic solvent found in several domestic water wells in the Buckley Road area of San Luis Obispo. It's been more than eighteen months since water quality officials discovered levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, that exceeded the EPA's drinking water standards in the groundwater of 13 domestic wells in the area. Despite environmental testing on multiple properties, including the SLO County Regional Airport, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has yet to find the source of that contamination. And the cost of the investigation is mounting, both for the water board and some of the residents whose properties are suspected of being the culprit.

Alan Strasbaugh owns a commercial property located at 825 Buckley Road. In November 2016, after testing showed that the airport was not the source of the TCE groundwater contamination, the water board turned its focus to three nearby properties, including Strasbaugh's, which had been singled out for potential TCE-related issues as far back as 2013. The property owners were required to pay for sampling and testing to determine if they were the source of the TCE.

In an interview with New Times, Strasbaugh said he has already spent about $50,000 total in connection with the water board's investigation of his property. That includes hiring environmental consultants, conducting testing on the property, and hiring an attorney, Strasbaugh said.

The results didn't reveal any evidence that his property was the source of the TCE.

"In spite of all their efforts to find TCE on the property and money I've spent, they found zero," Strasbaugh said.

Testing also indicated that a commercial property on Buckley Road owned by John Coakley likely wasn't the source of the contamination either. Coakley did not respond to New Times' request for comment.

Janice Noll is the majority owner of another commercial property located at 4665 Thread Lane. She's on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars to pay for testing on the land, which houses a machine shop that's operated since the 1960s and may have used industrial solvents in the past.

According to an April 2017 letter sent to the water board, Noll is struggling to come up with the estimated $45,000 to test her property's soil and groundwater.

"[Noll] works full time, but the rent she receives from the tenants on that property is a primary source of her income," wrote Westlake Village-based attorney David Ossentjuk, who's representing both Noll and Strasbaugh.

The letter stated that Noll had tried to borrow the money via a loan from a private lender, but was turned down. The letter also claimed that Noll was thinking about getting a bank loan, but expressed doubt she'd be approved once the lenders found out what the money would be used for. In an interview with New Times, Ossentjuk said Noll was still attempting to find funding and expressed frustration.

"She just doesn't have the money to pay for all this expensive work," he said.

SLO County also paid out of pocket for testing. According to county officials, it cost $592,711 to conduct testing at the airport.

Ossentjuk said that Noll filed a preliminary application asking for more than $45,000 in funding through the State Water Resources Control Board's Site Cleanup Subaccount Program, or SCAP, which provides grants to remediate existing or threatened harm caused by surface and groundwater contamination. As of July 7, the state board had not decided whether to approve Noll's application.

Noll isn't the only one seeking funding through SCAP in connection with the Buckley Road TCE contamination. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board filed for SCAP funding in September of last year, laying out a detailed six-phase plan at a cost of more than $298,000.

Dean Thomas, a project manager for the regional water board, said the state board was in the process of selecting contractors to do the work outlined in the application. In the meantime, he indicated the board was reviewing the data it's collected thus far to decide what the next steps in the investigation will be.

"It's hard to tell at this point," he said "We have to gather information and see where to go from there."

When and if the water board's investigators find the source of the contamination, property owners who've had to shell out the cash to clear their names shouldn't expect to recoup that money from the board itself. However, Thomas did say that they would be able to try and get that money back from whoever is ultimately found responsible for the contamination.

"Once we find that responsible party, they can request reimbursement," he said.

But Strasbaugh said that whoever ended up causing the mess would likely face lawsuits and claims from other area residents whose groundwater was contaminated. When asked the chances that he'd get his $50,000 back, Strasbaugh didn't take long to answer.

"Close to zero," he said. Δ

Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, or on Twitter at @CWMcGuinness.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the status of the water board's SCAP application. It has been changed to reflect that the funding was approved.


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