50 years since oil spill - Any lessons learned?

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill the public, environmental groups and elected officials are speaking out about plans to expand offshore drilling off America's coastline - not just the California coast, but around the country.

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With impacts of a warming planet making land fall in the form of fires, droughts, extreme storms and rising sea levels the public's role in applying pressure to decision makers is key - we must build the groundswell so our elected officials and public employees at all levels of government understand their marching orders - Climate Action Now! 

Read more for indepth story from the VCSTAR about the 69 spill and local actions to help stop more drilling off our coast.

This in depth story in today's VC Star tells the story of the 1969 spills from the perspective of Ventura City Council Member Christy Weir and others in the area, including comments from the industry. More photos & videos on the Stars Page HERE.

RSVP HERE to rally on Monday against more drilling, fracking and spilling in our oceans. 

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill: An environmental 'shot heard around the world'

FIFTY YEARS AGO, SANTA BARBARA WOKE UP TO ITS COAST COATED IN STICKY, PUNGENT OIL. WHAT CAME NEXT CHANGED ENVIRONMENTAL POLICY FOR THE NATION.

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, bubbling up to the surface off Platform A about 5 1/2 miles off the coast.

Photos from the 1969 oil spill are among the items on display in "The History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel" at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.

Photos from the 1969 oil spill are among the items on display in "The History of Oil in the Santa Barbara Channel" at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum.
(Photo: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/SANTA BARBARA MARITIME MUSEUM/DICK SMITH COLLECTION)

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)

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.

A photo from the Get Oil Out collection at the UC Santa Barbara library.

A photo from the Get Oil Out collection at the UC Santa Barbara library.
(Photo: Courtesy of SBHC Mss 10. Department of Special Research Collections, UC Santa Barbara Library)

"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 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.

MORE: Problems at oil, gas wells off coast persist as bankruptcy case continues

McGinnes went. 

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

Ventura Councilwoman Christy Weir was a teen growing up in Santa Barbara in January of 1969, when the largest oil spill in California history occurred off the coast. Weir was one of many locals who stepped in to help clean up the spill in the immediate aftermath.

Ventura Councilwoman Christy Weir was a teen growing up in Santa Barbara in January of 1969, when the largest oil spill in California history occurred off the coast. Weir was one of many locals who stepped in to help clean up the spill in the immediate aftermath.
(Photo: ANTHONY PLASCENCIA/THE STAR)

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.

MORE: Pipeline company found guilty in 2015 Refugio oil spill

The well was capped Feb. 7, but oil continued to seep from cracks in the ocean floor for months.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."

MORE: Top 20 onshore U.S. oil and gas spills since 2010

'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."

From 2015: Birds cleaned after California spill

Other laws and stricter regulations also came shortly after the spill. But some thought offshore platforms might go away for good.Offshore drilling did shut down temporarily but started up again and has continued for the past 50 years.In federal waters, the issuing of leases didn't stop but slowed. The last lease was issued in the early 1980s.

New oil leases 'came to a stop'

The state, which has jurisdiction up to three miles offshore, stopped issuing new leases after 1969 and the California Coastal Sanctuary Act prohibited doing so after 1994.

"From 1938 to 1969, the commission issued dozens and dozens of leases for offshore oil and gas production," said Sheri Pemberton, external affairs chief for the California State Lands Commission. "Then, that all came to a stop after the Santa Barbara spill."

But there are leases issued prior to 1969 that are still in effect, including 19 in state waters off California. They generate revenue and the state oversees them, Pemberton said.

"It's kind of winding down, but it's definitely still there," she said. 

Regulatory changes didn't prevent future spills, including the nation's largest in U.S. waters at least 44 oil spills that spilled over 420,000 gallons, according to NOAA. 

In May 2015, a corroded onshore pipeline ruptured and spilled as much as 143,000 gallons of oil, including into the ocean near Refugio State Beach off the Santa Barbara County coast.

The underground pipeline owned by Plains All American Pipeline had carried oil produced offshore.State Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, was in college in Claremont, California, in January 1969.“I remember the pictures, the pictures of what death looks like,” she said. “I remember thinking this is what the death of the planet looks like.”Last year, she proposed legislation that would stop any new oil and gas infrastructure being built in state waters, one of several she was worked on while in the Assembly and Senate.

Now law, it will prevent any new infrastructure in state waters that would allow the oil and gas to come onshore for processing. New development could still use existing infrastructure.

“It was a battle to get it passed,” Krop said. “Partly, it will have some impact on the ground but also it was a political statement.”

MORE: Refugio state beach reopens after spill

50 years later, the mission continues

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said the anniversary of the 1969 spill is a time to remember the coastal communities most affected and "how they've inspired not only reform" but a global movement to support environmental protection."

In an emailed statement to The Star, she said the industry also rates safety improvements as a top priority.

On Sunday, four local groups founded in response to the spill – GOO, the Community Environmental Council, the Environmental Defense Center and UC Santa Barbara's Environmental Studies Program – have planned a community event to mark the anniversary.

They've dubbed it a Call to Action, saying they'll reflect on what has happened since 1969 and look at what comes next.

Frisk said it's also a chance to let people know what work they're doing.

Last year, the Trump administration said it may open up oil and gas leases off the California coast. That came after years of moratoriums or the area not being included in federal leasing plans.

WATCH:Seat cushion material used for oil spill cleanup

A proposed five-year leasing program was expected to be released this month, which could include changes. The public will then get an opportunity to comment on that plan before one is finalized.

That's one reason the groups say their mission continues, as does the legacy of the '69 spill, Frisk said.

"Until the platforms are gone, until we meet some of the mandates to get off fossil fuels, … I think there’s a role for Get Oil Out to play," she said. "We know for a fact that this organization still has some trail and some road left in front of it."

MORE: Cleanup workers that claim BP oil spill made them sick haven't had day in court

To go

The "Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A Call to Action" will be held from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at the Arlington Theatre, 1317 State St. in Santa Barbara.

The UC Santa Barbara Library’s Special Research Collections will open an exhibit Jan. 28. Called “Anguish, Anger, and Activism: Legacies of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill” is free and open to the public. An opening event and reception will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 28.

A chain reaction

1969: Santa Barbara oil spill

1970: National Environmental Policy Act, California Environmental Quality Act, Environmental Protection Agency created

1972: Coastal Zone Management Act, Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act

1973: Endangered Species Act

Source: Environmental Defense Center

1969 oil spill by the numbers

  • A blowout on a Union Oil Co. well happened on Jan. 28, 1969.
  • The well was under under Platform A, roughly 5 1/12 miles off the coast.
  • An estimated 3.3 million gallons of oil spilled.
  • The well was capped on Feb. 7, but oil continued to vent from cracks in the sea floor for months.
  • On Jan. 31, the oil slick was reported to be 30 square miles.
  • Oil was spotted onshore from Pismo Beach to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Full article, photos & video at VCSTAR HERE. 

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