The Guadalupe contamination harks back to a time nearly 50 years ago when companies did not have to worry about the finer points of environmental permits.
"I remember when I first came out here in 1978, there were wells right on the beach, right on the high tide line," said Barry Lane, a Unocal spokesman.
The thinning agent was pumped through 158 miles of pipe to 220 wells at the Guadalupe field. Unocal officials concede that as much as 9 million gallons of oil leaked at various spots over the years.
The spill gained public attention in the early 1990s when surfers complained about getting covered with oil in the waves at the mouth of the river.
"It's regrettable it happened," Garcia said. "Nine million gallons of product is significant. But the surface features of the dunes are in remarkably great shape for all of that."
Company officials pleaded no contest six years ago to criminal charges alleging that some Unocal employees had ignored leaks for years. "My task has been to bring back a measure of credibility to Unocal," Garcia said.