Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
Santa Barbara area spill reopens wounds from 1969By Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky, May 21, 2015 10:40pm
GOLETA, Santa Barbara County — The scene along the Santa Barbara County coast was horrific: An oil slick 6 inches deep blackened 800 square miles of seawater, 3,500 birds were dead, and 100 dead elephant seals and sea lions were found on a San Miguel Island beach.
It was 1969.
When oil spilled again this week, the outcome — and duration — was much different, largely because that man-made disaster 46 years ago changed everything, prompting the first Earth Day and giving rise to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California Coastal Commission and the landmark California Environmental Quality Act.
Still, it reopened wounds left from that unprecedented disaster.
“I’ve just been thrust back almost 50 years,” said Robert Sollen, 93, a former award-winning reporter for the Santa Barbara News-Press, referring to his coverage of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. The deep water blowout of a Union Oil rig had spilled an estimated 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean over 11 days, but the oil giant downplayed the incident.
Fred Hartley, the president of Union Oil, refused to call it a disaster because human lives were not lost. “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds,” he said in 1969.
This week’s spill dumped as much as 105,000 gallons of crude oil over several hours out of an onshore pipe owned by Plains All-American Pipeline. The oil flowed into the water through a culvert, prompting an immediate and enormous unified response under the command of the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
State of emergency
Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County as nearly 300 state and federal emergency workers and scientists raked oil off Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach. Five pelicans and a sea lion were rescued and were being treated.
“There will be serious repercussions and people demanding how this could happen,” Sollen said as a shiny opaque ring of oil collected on the beaches and along the surrounding cliffs at the high tide mark. “After 50 years, that’s as it should be.”
The situation is a reminder to Sollen and many other locals who witnessed the 1969 oil spill of how vulnerable Santa Barbara County is to disaster.
The Santa Barbara Channel sits on a thick block of sedimentary rock that holds down vast quantities of oil. There is so much oil, in fact, that it sometimes seeps naturally from the sea floor.
The area is consequently a highly valuable resource for the petroleum industry. In fact, the first offshore oil drilling in the world was built in 1896 off the southern coast of Santa Barbara County, just 6 miles from the site of the catastrophic spill 73 years later.
There was anger even then as ugly oil platforms and pollution began to spoil the dramatic natural scenery and unspoiled beaches. Vigilantes, led by a local newspaper publisher named Reginald Fernald, actually tore down an oil rig at Miramar Beach.
“The protests started in the late 1890s,” said Sollen, who wrote a book called “Ocean of Oil” about the oil boom in the area. “Of course they polluted like crazy, but there were no regulations in effect at that time.”
The horror to come
The oil boom continued despite public opposition and numerous small oil spills, including one in 1968 that dumped 2,000 gallons of crude oil off the coast, inflaming local opposition. Sollen said locals had long predicted and he had written about the potential for a large spill, but he was not prepared for the horror that he would soon witness.
At 10:45 a.m. on Jan. 28, 1969, pressurized natural gas and oil exploded out of a 3,500-foot-deep well as Union Oil attempted to extract a drilling pipe at a platform called Alpha.
‘It was in your face’
“It was the first of its kind on that scale, and it was in your face,” said Keith Clarke, a geography professor at UC Santa Barbara, who wrote a retrospective on the disaster in 2002 for a scientific convention. “There was no way to avoid it. It was right in front of a resort town.”
The dismissive statement from the Union Oil president and subsequent revelations that the oil company had gotten a waiver from the federal government allowing them not to use casing designed to prevent such a blowout prompted a national movement and inspired wholesale changes in policy and law.
“People stood there and cried,” said Bud Bottoms, an 87-year-old artist, activist and author who helped found a group called Get Oil Out, or GOO. “There was no sound. There were no waves. It was just flat with about 2 or 3 inches of oil coming to shore.”
Fired up the activists
GOO collected 100,000 signatures on a petition to ban offshore drilling and organized a campaign to send flasks of spilled oil to politicians. Local activists also formed a group called the Environmental Defense Center.
“People were so fueled up,” Bottoms said from his Santa Barbara living room. “We marched to the wharf that had been leased by the oil company and blocked the trucks from coming onto the dock. From there we started the publicity fight.”
A subsequent ballot initiative created the California Coastal Commission to regulate coastal areas. The California Environmental Quality Act soon followed, forcing developers and other land users to consider environmental impacts.
President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969, mandating scrutiny of all federal projects, including drilling platforms and offshore oil leases, for environmental impacts before approval. In 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency was formed.
First Earth Day
The Santa Barbara spill inspired then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to organize Earth Day, an annual celebration of the world ecosystem that continues to this day. The State Land Commission halted offshore drilling after the spill, but Ronald Reagan lifted the ban years later when he was president.
Despite all this, rows of drilling platforms can still be seen off Highway 101 between Ventura and Santa Barbara, features of the landscape that many locals still call “Reagan’s Christmas trees.”
The platforms, and the oil glut they represent, are a sign to many locals that oil drilling is not likely to cease anytime soon.
“The bottom line is that in spite of it all, we really only pay attention to this when there are large leaks and they occur in beautiful places,” Clarke said. “There is always a level of protection that we need that we don’t seem to be able to put in place. Meanwhile, oil and water still don’t mix.”
Peter Fimrite and Evan Sernoffsky are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers.