The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill
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January 28th, 1969 was a galvanizing day for citizens of Santa Barbara, the state of California, and the United States. Roughly two miles off the coast, Platform A blew out and began to release millions of gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. It took eleven days to plug the leak, but pressure buildup caused the ocean floor to rip open and oil to pour out for almost a full year. 30 miles of coastal lands were coated in crude oil, thousands of marine species died, and at the time it was the largest oil spill in US waters; today it is the third largest.
This week is the 50th anniversary of that oil spill and groups all over Santa Barbara have been celebrating the positive environmental outcomes that have resulted from the event. Three weeks ago, on January 10th, the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum hosted guest lecturer Marc McGinnes to speak about his experiences. McGinnes, along with about half of the attendees of the event, witnessed the devastating ’69 oil spill first hand. McGinnes began his story of action with the famous ‘Earthrise’ photo taken a month before on the Apollo 8 mission. The photo had brought on a “whole world consciousness” and established a greater awareness of being a citizen of Earth that pushed people to take action after the spill.
Oil in Santa Barbara has a long history. For instance, Chumash peoples have been using naturally occurring oil for thousands of years. The Channel has several oil fields and one of the world’s largest natural oil seep areas: Coal Oil Point. For a long time Santa Barbara was an “oil town” as McGinnes referred to it. However the oil spill catapulted Santa Barbara to be a world leader in “innovative environmental solutions.” President Nixon visited after the spill and consequently created the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Additionally, the Environmental Quality Act was signed into law in California.
This past Sunday, the 27th, Arlington Theater was filled to near maximum capacity for ‘50 Years after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A Call to Action’ hosted by four primary organizations founded after the spill: These organizations included Get Oil Out (GOO!)--a public interest group founded by Bud Bottoms that works to protect California from the dangers of oil drilling, the Environmental Defense Center--a local, environmental law firm founded in 1977, the Community Environmental Council--a local non profit that has pushed Santa Barbara toward green solutions since it was founded in 1970, and, finally, the UCSB Environmental Studies Program--founded by Roderick Nash in 1970 after he wrote the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights. These four organizations, along with many other guest speakers such as Congressman Salud Carbajal and State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, rallied the audience in celebration of everything accomplished. However, the wider message and mood was to motivate people for all the things that are yet to be done. The event was certainly ‘a call to action’ as the audience was nearly jumping out of their seats during a few particularly rousing speeches.
The 1969 Oil Spill launched Santa Barbara to the forefront of environmental protection advocacy where it remains today. The rest of the world has followed suit, encouraged by the impassioned citizens who took a stand.