The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill: An environmental 'shot heard around the world'
CNT Editor's Note: On the Memorial Day Summer Kick Off Podcast, Part II, we interviewed Andra Belknap from Ventura County, California. We discussed the famous Ventura oil spill from the late 1960's and referred to it as the Amaco Cadiz. That was wrong. The oil tanker Amoco Cadiz ran aground off the coast of Brittany, France, on 16 March 1978, and ultimately split in three and sank, all together resulting in the largest oil spill of its kind in history to that date. This story is about the actual late 1960's spill Andra was referring to.
A blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara 50 years ago not only galvanized the community and state but led to a wave of environmental laws nationwide.
On Jan. 28, 1969, thousands of barrels of oil spilled into the ocean off Platform A about 5½ miles off the coast.
Within days, an oil slick covered more than 30 square miles of ocean. Birds and sea lions washed ashore coated in sticky, thick goo as the spill grew larger by the hour and eventually crippled the popular, picturesque coast.
"We woke up and the beaches were covered," said Christy Weir, then a 14-year-old growing up in Santa Barbara. "It was one of those eerie things where it wasn't just the sight of the black gunk everywhere."
A pervasive smell of crude oil blew into town and the sounds changed as the tide washed ashore like thick sludge. Instead of a familiar crash of waves, Weir said, the sea made a muffled, gurgling sound.
Images of oil-covered birds and surfboards and a gummy, blackened coastline showed up in newspapers and on television screens across the country.
“It was the first oil spill that was televised and brought into everyone’s homes. It really was a visceral experience for folks, even for folks that weren’t from Santa Barbara or Ventura," said Sean Anderson, a professor of environmental studies at CSU Channel Islands.
Later that year, the polluted Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire.
“All of that energy kind of came together, galvanized,” said Anderson, who graduated from UC Santa Barbara and whose early work focused on oil spills. "That really gave impetus to what we consider now the cornerstones to the modern environmental movement."
Environmental issues addressed
A workman using a pitchfork helps during the cleanup of oil-soaked straw from the beach at Santa Barbara Harbor in California on Feb. 7, 1969. The oil, leaking from an off-shore well for over a week, covered local beaches and threatened many Southern California shoreline areas. (AP Photo)
(Photo: Anonymous, AP)
A year later, the first Earth Day was held. A bipartisan effort in Washington, D.C., passed the National Environmental Policy Act and President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
A succession of other laws protecting water, marine life and endangered species followed.
"We always like to say the oil spill was the environmental shot heard around the world," said Carla Frisk, on the board of Get Oil Out, a Santa Barbara group that formed within a day of the spill.
As oil still gushed into the ocean, people headed to the beaches to help, gathered in meeting rooms and carried handmade signs to protests.
UC Santa Barbara founded one of the nation's first environmental studies programs. And along with Get Oil Out, called GOO for short, others joined up to start the Community Environmental Council and later the Environmental Defense Center.
"It shows what a powerful impulse that was at that time," said Paul Relis, a UC Santa Barbara student at the time of the spill and founding executive director of the CEC.
"I guess sometimes catastrophes give birth to extraordinary actions," he said. "I wish it weren't that way."
He was driving to campus when he heard a news report about the spill. Instead of taking the turn to go to the university, he drove south to the wharf.
"That was my fateful decision in terms of my career path," said Relis, who was 21, a surfer and literature major back then.
'It was an outrage'
The mix of oil and seawater lapping up on the beach looked like a pureed black bean soup, he said, and carpeted the sand and rocky shoreline.
"For those of us with a love of the ocean, ... it was an outrage," Relis said. "It was an outrage for most of Santa Barbara. The town was just really ticked off that this thing had happened."
Tourism, the fishing industry and economy all took hits as a months-long cleanup started.
People just kind of converged with "audacious ideas" that they wanted to do something to stop it from happening again, he said.
For some, that meant protesting oil. For others, it meant taking legal action. "I was interested in the alternatives to oil," he said.
In Northern California, Marc McGinnes was working as an attorney at a law firm when his phone rang. On the other end, his mentor Rep. Paul "Pete" McCloskey told him to head to Santa Barbara.
The Republican congressman from California told him the spill and its aftermath would open up a whole new field of law — one that would be the right fit for him.
Soon, McGinnes, Relis and others would form a Jan. 28 committee in response to the spill. A year later, they would both be working with the newly-founded Community Environmental Council; Relis as executive director and McGinnes as board president.
Community cleans up coast
News of the blowout on Platform A in federal waters didn't spread immediately. A Santa Barbara News-Press reporter broke the story after getting a tip about the spill.
A mixture of oil, gas, and drilling mud had blasted up the drill and spewed out onto the platform and into the ocean, news reports said at the time.
Later, agencies said the spill may not have happened or could have been less severe if Union Oil had put more steel casing around the well. The company, however, had gotten a waiver not to do so.
Workers jammed mud and cement into the leak, trying to stem the flood into the Santa Barbara Channel. Within days, oil had made it to the shore, soaking Santa Barbara County beaches and spreading south into Ventura.
The well was capped Feb. 7, but oil continued to seep from cracks in the ocean floor for months, according to a federal report on the spill.
An estimated 3.3 million gallons of oil spilled, still one of the largest offshore spills in U.S. waters.
As much as 100 miles of Southern California coastline were impacted by the oil and thousands of birds, fish and other wildlife died.
Weir, now a Ventura City Council member, remembers people trying to clean birds covered in oil. She raked hay with friends and neighbors on Santa Barbara beaches.
At the time, hay was scattered to try to absorb the oil.
"People just kind of rallied immediately," she said. "People would take a bucket and detergent and try to scrub the oil off the rocks. People spread hay on the beach and raked it up to try to get the oil off the sand."
'A direct response'
The National Environmental Policy Act, passed in 1970, required agencies to consider environmental consequences before they take action.
If that had happened, the casing may have been required and the spill prevented, said Linda Krop, the current chief counsel of the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara.
"People talk loosely about, 'Yeah, the '69 spill led to all these laws' because we got all this environmental awareness, but it’s actually more specific than that," she said. "This was a direct response to this spill to try to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again."