Major Toxic Cleanup Operation Ordered Near Santa Maria Airport

State Water Board Names County of Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, and Airport in What Could Prove to Be Extravagantly Expensive Cleanup Order

Santa Maria Airport | Credit: Glenn Beltz | Credit: Glenn Beltz

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control filed cleanup and abatement orders on the County of Santa Barbara, the City of Santa Maria, and the Santa Maria Airport to address a real or potential threat to underground aquifers posed by the release of toxic chemicals on a 10-acre parcel of land between Santa Maria’s airport and golf course that could date back as far as 1942. The order details fits-and-starts regulatory efforts to address the problem from the 1980s to the present, but this marks the first comprehensive effort to come to terms with the release of cancer-causing volatile organic chemicals on the site over decades. 

Much more remains unknown than known about the actual threat posed, but at one point, regulators determined that the concentrations of these chemicals in the soil were more than 186,000 times greater than the allowable level under state law. One well on the site that supplied drinking water was shut down in the 1980s, and a cleanup effort undertaken about the same time stopped after one week because the filters deployed became so choked with toxins. 

The ramifications of the cleanup order remain a matter of intense speculation and apprehension by the government agencies involved. Thomas Widroe, an agent hired by the Santa Maria Airport, had hoped the water board would hold off on issuing the order so that funding sources for what could prove an extravagantly expensive undertaking could be identified. Widroe also objected that the order does not include the Department of Defense, which owned the land in question during World War II and used it as a training site for military pilots. 

When most of the problems surfaced, the land was owned by a tool-and-die company that used volatile organic compounds to degrease their drill bits. That company has been named in the order, but it’s long been out of business, and it’s unclear what insurance coverage the heirs have. Either way, the road ahead promises to be long, arduous, and legally contentious.


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