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News Columns & Blogs

Oil tanks once filled Avila Beach skyline. They came down with a crash


Oil tanks used to dominate the Central Coast landscape.

Union Oil, Chevron and Texaco all operated oil tanker terminals here. Tanks dotted the hillsides above Avila Beach and Morro Bay, and fields near modern-day Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo.

The San Luis Obispo tank farm was one of the world’s epic projects.

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In the era before diesel-fired bulldozers, 300 teamsters hitched up horse teams excavating 80,000 cubic yards of earth from each reservoir in 1910.

Fields near Maricopa and Santa Maria were generating oil even when a tanker was not docked, so the tank farms helped buffer the supply line.

Fire was the biggest fear of tank farm operators, and a tank in Avila Beach near Harford Pier and San Luis Obispo’s tank farm were hit by that disaster.

Avila Beach also suffered from contamination from leaky pipelines, resulting in lawsuits culminating in the demolition of the town and Unocal tank farm. The tank farm was cleared to make room for excavation of the town.

Today, oil prices are crashing as dramatically as those storage tanks. Coronavirus shutdowns have crimped demand for fuel worldwide while Russia and Saudi Arabia continue a price war and flood the market.

Some of those companies might wish that they had those tanks back.

Four major projects are in seen in various states of planning in Avila Beach in 2018. One at the old Chevron Tank Farm property, formerly Union Oil, would add a hotel resort area, restaurant and shops. David Middlecamp

Vern Ahrendes wrote this story, published on Dec. 13, 1997:

Avila tanks going away

AVILA BEACH — A construction crew peeled open a 53-year-old oil storage tank Friday like a giant canned ham.

The storage tank is the third dismantled in the past two weeks at the Unocal Corp. tank farm as the company takes its most visible step yet to repair decades of environmental damage caused here.

“It is good to see when Unocal says something that it actually does something,” said Leonard Cohen, owner of the Olde Port Inn Restaurant.

“For so many years it seemed like Unocal wasn’t doing anything.”

The one-half inch steel walls take two days to demolish. It took two months to build the tank.

To rip through the half-inch to three-quarter-inch thick steel walls of the tank, a snipping mechanism was affixed to the arm of a large tractor.

It took about three minutes for the blade to slice off a 3-foot-wide section of the 60-foot-high tank.

The din from metal cutting metal could be heard across the harbor at Port San Luis.

Once the side was opened up, the lid of the tank was ripped off to be cut into smaller sections and recycled.

The tanks will be cut into pieces small enough to fit into semi-trucks and hauled away to a recycler.

About six of the tank sections can be carried in each truck load, roughly weighing 20 to 21 tons per load.

“With the importance these tanks had in World War II in fueling the Pacific Fleet, we were joking last week that these might be Toyotas next week,” said Denny Lamb, Unocal’s manager of Avila affairs.

The other three portions of the Unocal cleanup are excavating the beach, starting a number of other mitigation plans and setting up a fund to pay property owners and businesses impacted by the oil spill.

Unocal’s four-point plan is its proposed compromise to the much larger excavation of the beach and commercial district recommended in an environmental impact report done for the county.

“We are progressing on all three planks of that cleanup plan,” Lamb said.

A series of underground pipes connect the tank farm to the oil company’s pier east of town. Over the past 50 years, some 400,000 gallons of mostly diesel fuel and crude oil have leaked from those pipes, creating a large cleanup mess for Unocal and local regulatory agencies.

“We proposed the four-point plan as a balanced and effective means of addressing the contamination and enhancing the community of Avila Beach,” Lamb said. “We are happy to move forward with the project, and more importantly, fulfill a commitment we made to the community.”

Two tanks on the skyline above Avila Beach already have been torn down. The third was the most visible from the water, Lamb said. Eleven more of the avocado green and white tanks will be dismantled before the summer of 1998, said Lamb.

Three tanks will remain untouched — a water tank owned by the Avila Beach Community Services District and two water storage tanks for fighting fires.

Officials from the community services district will tour the tank farm next week to see if one of the oil storage tanks can be salvaged to store additional water to fight fires.

Unocal has yet to explain their plans for the property once the tanks are removed.County Supervisor Peg Pinard challenged the company Friday to donate the 100 acres to Avila Beach as a gesture of goodwill.

“The destruction of these tanks is symbolic,” Pinard said. “We all like to have a benchmark, and to see those tanks come down says we are working forward.”

Lamb said he has heard several suggested uses for the land and the tanks.”

One person suggested leaving one of the tanks to be used as an aquarium,” Lamb said. “But, that is not an option. We are tearing them down.”

The Unocal property is currently zoned for industrial use. Any changes would have to be approved by San Luis Obispo County and possibly the state Coastal Commission.

The Union Oil Co. acquired the tank farm site in 1906 and the first storage tank was built that year in conjunction with the Producer’s Transportation Co. pipeline project.

For years oil tankers paid regular visits to the harbor. Oil distribution systems in the state have bypassed Avila Beach and rendered the tank farm and the company’s pier unnecessary.

Unocal has sold its California holdings to Tosco Corp. and in August the company symbolically padlocked shut the pipeline’s valves.

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