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David, Goliath and the Beach Cleaning Machine - Book Information and Review

  • Hardcover - 232 pages
  • ISBN 1-931-86831-X
  • ISBN 193186831X
  • Text Copyright 2003 Barbara Wolcott

    From Left Inside Flap:
    One morning when Saro Rizzo, a young attorney from Avila Beach, California, stumbled again over picnic debris as he ran along the beach, he determined to get his little town a beach-cleaning machine.

    Ringed by mountains and nestled between Santa Barbara and Monterey, Avila Beach was an isolated little oil town of some four hundred aging hippies, scattered professionals, and active octogenarians. It was not a community of protestors.

    Rizzo innocently began his crusade by requesting a donation from the local oil giant Unocal. Through a series of events rich in deceipt, controversy and greed, a massive oil spill and an environmental disaster were exposed.

    Now Pulitzer-prize-nominee Barbara Wolcott has written David, Goliath and the Beach- Cleaning Machine to tell the inspiring story of Rizzo's deteremined quest to rally his town of staunch independents against the corporate giant that had polluted their town. Rizzo's was the first of nearly sixty legal suits, including some filed by Ed Masry of Erin Brockovich fame. Eventually, the townspeople won big--to the tune of $18 million in damages as well as an estimated $100 to $200 million for the clean-up.

    But there is another side to this story of citizen victory that raises difficult questions all environmental activists must face. As a result of the massive clean-up, beautiful downtown Avila Beach has been almost totally leveled, even though the townspeople fought to save those buildings that represented their history and sense of place. Now that the town is in the spotlight as a model of environmental rescue, the beach cleaning machine has arrived, but few of those who fought for the clean-up remain.

    From Right Inside Flap:
    About The Author:
    Barbara Wolcott is an award-winning freelance journalist whose work has appeared in a wide variety of national and international periodicals, journals, and books, including the Los Angeles Times Magazine, San Diego Family Magazine, Arizona Wildlife, and Mechanical Engineering Magazine. She was nominated for a 2002 Pulitzer Prize and has won awards from the California Newspaper Association. Barbara Wolcott holds a B.A. degree in Communications from California State University- Fullerton. She lives in San Luis Obispo, California, fifteen miles from Avila Beach.

    From Back Cover

    "This smart, small-town page-turner goes to the guts of what is right and wrong about America today. Barbara Wolcott has written a riveting story about taking our country back from the people who are ruining it, and her tale is an ominous warning about how lasting the damages of an unregulated industry can be."
    --Tim Palmer, author of Pacific High: Adventures in the Coast Ranges from Baja to Alaska and The Heart of America

    "In this true story of toxic pollution, corporate intransigence, and the battle to save the soul of the tiny, idyllic California coastal town of Avila Beach, Barbara Wolcott captures the anger, hopelessness and eventual triumph of the town and its residents and their struggle with Unocal. Ms. Wolcott tells the human story of a hundred years of oil operations and its devestating impace on the fiber and nature of the town and its 350 residents. While the devestation was much smaller in scale than Love Canal or Times Beach, the lives of the residents were no less affected. Ms. Wolcott's narratives evokes the emotional roller-coaster ride through the eyes of the people who were there and who struggled for recovery."
    --Ken Alex, Deputy Attorney General, California

    "David, Goliath and the Beach-Cleaning Machine captures the spirit of the people of Avila Beach while showing the true colors of Unocal in their efforts to shine the people on. As the drama unfolds, Barbara Wolcott is true to the facts, reporting the many characters and conflicts of the unfolding story, following it to the birth of a new Avila Beach. It's an interesting read that moves right along."
    --Evelyn Delany, former San Luis Obispo County, District 3 Supervisor 1985 to 1997
  • David, Goliath and the Beach Cleaning Machine is an inspiring story about a small town that sticks up for itself. Although the town had limited legal resources, the people found a way to fight for what they thought was right.

    Avila Beach had a long history of oil pollution problems long before Saro Rizzo announced his suit against Unocal. Any time someone dug there was the risk of finding oil. In 1997 there was an issue with gasoline as well. "Kelley had been open only a week in June 1977 when the explosion happenned. A basement apartment adjacent to the restaurant became ground zero, when the pilot light of a water heater set off the vapors." [18]

    More evidence of oil problems came about in 1988 when Michal Rudd wanted to expand his store. "As part of the permit process for new construction, he contracted for a soil test, which immediately indicated that fumes were coming from underground. The fumes were so strong that engineers were afraid that if one of them lit a cigarette they would all be blown away." [19]

    Some of the pipeline leaks were obvious while others were not. One of the more obvious leaks came in 1992. "Then, in 1992, a Unocal pipeline broke, spilling five hundred barrels of crude oil at the edge of the ocean. Pirates Cove and Fossil Point on the eastern edge of Avila Beach were blackened, and the shore was strewn with dead birds and a small number of otters. Ten thousand salmon fingerlings that were being tended by the Central Coast Salmon Enhancement Program were also lost in the bay, and their holding pens were damaged." [20]

    There was evidence that Unocal did not always reveal the true extent of damage in Avila Beach and surrounding areas. "Unocal employee Dan Tucker reported to Santa Barbara County regulators that the company had been concealing diluent leaks at the Guadalupe Dunes facility since the 1980s. According to county documents, Tucker claimed that readings on constantly checked individual meters never matched those on master meters, and he said he believed that at least one hundred barrels of diluent were being lost each day. Tucker added that when he reported the discrepancies to his supervisors, he was told the meters were not registering accurately. Tucker was unconvinced and unable to accept the continued losses. He finally reported his concerns to a Santa Barbara County environmental health investigator." [21-22]

    Year after year, more evidence of damage became apparent. "Tensions moved to the fast track on a brilliant fall day in October 1995 when a member of California Fish & Game discovered an oily sheen on the water in Avila Beach. Oil had begun to daylight from a source below ground, and the water board ordered an immediate emergency cleanup along the San Luis Obispo Creek, a location where a mere 2.5 feet of sand covered the contamination." [32]

    Late in 1995 digging was done even though Unocal said it was not needed as the contamination was asphalted. "Work continuted on the dig, and on December 14, diggers hit a gusher, but not just water as they had expected. Asphalted oil was nowhere to be seen, instead free crude product floated in the murky water in an ever-widening lake. One Unocal official claimed that the digging had shaken and squeezed the petroleum product, separating it fron the soil and causing it to become liquid. Ignoring arguments that solid asphalt was not capable of yielding free crude in the manner described, Unocal announced that they had always expected to find some liquid petroleum and had said so publicly." [34-35]

    The Guadalupe Dunes, near Avila Beach, have been used by Hollywood. "In 1923, Cecil B. DeMille came to Guadalupe Dunes and built the largest movie set in history for his epic, The Ten Commandments. There were a million pounds of statuary in the set that required fifteen hundred construction workers to erect. The finished film set was 120 feet high and 720 feet wide. When shooting was over, DeMille ordered the set struck and buried in the dunes." [38-39]

    Unocal often proposed biosparging as a method for cleaning for both Avila Beach and the Guadalupe Dunes. "Suddenly, this incredible niche in nature along with one man's creation was under attack from below by a petroleum spill nearly the size of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. As it did with the Avila Beach contamination, Unocal proposed that the Guadalupe Dunes spill could be partially remediated with biosparging. While that choice of remedation promised to take much longer than excavation, it presented the best alternative for the area, because it would leave the surface of the dunes relatively untouched and its expanse of wildlife undisturbed. There was no economic impact at Guadalupe Dunes for anyone but Unocal." [39]

    Young Saro Rizzo worked creatively to strengthen his suit. "Meanwhile, in the midst of the turmoil on all fronts, Saro Rizzo put together his petition to the court. His suit on behalf of the Avila Alliance was unique because instead of filing a class action suit, which required the involvement of approximately thirty similarly affected people, he chose to file under an unused section of California's Proposition 65, a law that had been passed by initiative ten years previously. While a typical class action suit reflects only a segment of the population, Rizzo filed on behalf of all of the people of California, on the grounds that water belongs to everyone." [55]

    The author does a nice job of pointing out some of the specific qualities about Avila Beach that make it unique to the area. Many beaches in Southern California face south. Examples are Malibu, Long Beach, San Pedro and others. As one moves north up the coast, most of the beaches face west. Even though Avila Beach is in Central California, it faces south like some of the Southern California beaches. "Stand facing the ocean on nearly every beach on the West Coast and the sun will rise behind you and set directly into your eyes. Do the same at Avila Beach and the sun comes up on your left and sets on the right in a magnificant arch across the heavens. Sheltered from winter storms that originate in the Alasakan north, south-facing beaches are warm and sunny when most others in the region are overcast and cold."

    Unocal would not commit to excavation and they often pointed to bioremediation as the answer for Avila Beach. "In response, the company got Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, involved in a continued push for bioremedation. Professor Niropam Pal at the school was featured in the Telegram-Tribune, pointing out that digging destroys habitats and exposes toxins into the surrounding air and water. The professor claimed bioremediation was a permanent solution because bacteria convert the petroleum into CO2 and other benign molecules." [74]

    Unocal continued down the road of bioremediation late in 1996. "In November Unocal announced a gift to Cal Poly of $1 million in cash and $350,000 in equipment for a joint three-year study to find environmentally sensitive ways to remove soil pollution, meaning bioremediation. Expenditure of the money was to be directed by Raul Cano, the first scientist to extract dinosaur DNA from amber, whose research is widely believed to have been the impetus for the book and Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic Park." [77]

    Unocal attorneys continued to avoid excavation and Rizzo had to keep bringing it up. Rizzo argued that their excavation known as the Little Dig had worked nicely so they should consider the same approach for Avila Beach. "He reminded Unocal attorneys that the company's own Internet site touted what a great success the Little Dig had been, and, therefore, it was logical to just continue the same approach in dealing with the rest of it.
    Unocal's answer was to cement the beach. 'Initially, hardly any residents went to the meetings,' said Rizzo, 'and [the company] may have thought they could pull it off. They went public with this idea of solidification and must have thought people would actually buy into it.' For the rest of the pollution under the town, Unocal held fast to biosparging as the means of cleanup." [112-113]

    Saro Rizzo continued to work to ensure that his case would be successful. "As the dust began to settle into new legal patterns, Rizzo did something that had a major impact on the Avila Alliance's suit. Determined not to be a minor partner in the legal action, he decided that to stay involved, he would need to enlist the help of an 800-pound gorilla--he called on the internationally acclaimed law firm Milberg Weiss to participate with him.
    Perhaps the largest plantiff's attorney group in the United States, Milberg Weiss is a household name in legal circles for winning huge suits, including the Exxon Valdez case, obtaining German reparations for Holocaust victims, mitigating the savings and loan fraud, and winning tobacco litigation. The firm sent attorney Steve Crandall to Avila Beach as their representative. Crandall had gained experience in the San Luis Obispo area when he helped to resolve the PG&E case with Ken Alex two years earlier. That case may have been old by the time Crandall arrived, but the wounds in Avila Beach that had been inflicted by the distribution of the PG&E settlement were still fresh. Crandall was the perfect partner to Rizzo, and the two immediately became good friends as well as forming a professional team." [117]

    Some of the most convincing evidence of pollution came from Unocal employees. "I worked at Avila for approximately twenty years. Almost every Friday for years we had to repair broken lines that went down Front Street or the lines coming off the hill. In fact, by the Front Street gate at the entrance to the tank farm, you would actually see oil coming out of the bank." [140-141]

    Rizzo felt his case would have a better chance with federal judges over state judges. "When he announced his intention to take the case to federal court in early 1997, he based his reasoning on the fact that federal judges are appointed for life and their caseloads differ in impact. Rizzo knew it was more commonplace for them to order a hundred-million or two-hundred-million dollar cleanup than it was for a local or state judge to do." [153]

    Eventually Unocal started agreeing that excavation was the best long term solution. This was a key turning point in the negotiations. "The move toward reconciling differences was generally the responsibility of Unocal's lead corporate attorney, Mark Smith. It appeared to Rizzo that the company's board of directors finally came to the conclusion that excavation was the only way to get the matter settled. That was the one point on which there was no compromise for the partnership team. The crack in the wall of opposition Unocal had maintained for so long appeared when Smith took over the defense team." [154]

    In order to simplify things, Smith did some things privately. "In an audacious move, Smith sent Unocal's entire legal team to the mountains for a skiing weekend and then offered to meet with Rizzo and Alex privately." [158] It was in that private meeting where settlement neared completion.

    Shortly after reaching a settlemnet with Avila Beach, Unocal settled with the Guadalupe Dunes situation as well. "A month after the announcement of the settlement in Avila Beach, Unocal also settled the problem at Guadalupe Dunes with the State of California for another $43 million. California Attorney General Dan Lungren was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying it was 'possibly the largest environmental settlement in the history of California.' However, it was not the costliest. Avila Beach was, because of the number of private agreements the company had made over the previous ten years with property owners and renters, over and above the cost of the cleanup itself." [178]

    The cleanup project ended up being a huge undertaking. "A total of 300,000 cubic yards of earth were dug up, removed, and replaced. Five city blocks were razed. As the inevitability of the dig was accepted, the scope of the project escalated, and the number of buildings that would go down increased, as did the volume of earth to be moved." [186]

    Barbara Wolcott did a wonderful job of summarizing the events of the case and settlement. Complex legal ideas were explained in plain English.

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