A Polluted Town's Last Summer

It has been a bittersweet summer in Avila Beach, California, reports CBS News Correspondent John Blackstone. As autumn begins to roll in, this laid-back beach town is facing destruction.

Every business on bustling Front Street will be torn down as an unprecedented pollution cleanup begins.

"The town is essentially floating on top of some very toxic chemicals," says attorney Steve Williams.

To get to the chemicals, local institutions like the Lighthouse Bar will be demolished. The streets around Linda Cullen's house will be ripped up. The Avila Beach she knows will be gone.

In order to be saved, Avila Beach will be destroyed. Much of the town will be dug up and carted away.

No matter how pleasant and appealing this beach looks, it's not a place where kids are encouraged to build sandcastles. Signs here warn that digging a hole in the sand any more than two feet deep could be a danger to your health.

For 90 years, Unocal -- the oil company -- brought oil tankers into Avila Beach and piped fuel under the town. For many of those years the pipes leaked.

"There's about 400 thousand gallons of mostly diesel underneath front street, the town and the beach as a total," says Dennis Lamb, Unocal's Avila Beach manager.

Facing a massive lawsuit, Unocal has agreed to do what no polluter has done before. They say they will excavate the town, and then rebuild it. The cleanup could cost more than $100 million and take almost two years.

"We will clean up the contaminated soil, there will be no risk to ground water and we will help people re-establish their businesses and their homes here," says Lamb.

However, for many residents the cleanup plans hold only uncertainty.

"The people who live in the homes that are being torn down, the people who own the businesses that are being torn down, have not been told a word about what will happen to them," says Steve Williams.

While the cleanup is what the people of Avila Beach want and what the town needs, there is still worry about all that might be lost.

"How do you rebuild something funky or replace lives? It'll never be the same," says Linda Cullen.

The new Avila Beach will be on the same bay, with the same views out over the Pacific. The beach will be clean and safe. But still many will miss the old Avila Beach, which is now enjoying the last days of its last summer.

Reported by John Blackstone
©1998, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved
  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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