The weekend oil spill along the Southern California coast not far from the site of catastrophe more than a generation ago helped give rise to the modern environmental movement: the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill
The weekend oil spill along the Southern California coast not far from the site of catastrophe more than a generation ago helped give rise to the modern environmental movement: the 1969 Santa Barbara spill.
It still ranks among the top levels of human-caused disasters in the United States and is the nation’s third largest oil spill, behind only the 2010 Deepwater Horizon and 1989 Exxon Valdez disasters.
During a 10-day period in early 1969, an explosion six miles deep at the Union oil drilling platform spilled between 3.5 million and 4.2 million gallons of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. The disaster area was about 115 miles from the site of a 126,000-gallon spill over the weekend that decimated Huntington Beach, a famous surfing spot.
The Union Oil Rig has been controversial since its inception, but local California communities were given no voice in decisions about drilling in federal waters. And corners were cut during the construction process: Regulations called for protective steel casing to be at least 300 feet below sea level, but the company gained an exemption by only allowing 239 feet of casing to be installed.
After the spill, thousands of oil-coated birds were killed and photos of carnage on beaches were widely circulated in newspapers and magazines.
President Richard Nixon visited the site in March 1969 and told reporters, “It is sad that it was necessary to have the example of Santa Barbara that was to bring this to the attention of the American people.”
That example – cutting corners to save time or money for communities and large companies left out from important decisions – has attracted national attention and caused outrage. This gave impetus to the movement to organize the first Earth Day the following year.
Gaylord Nelson, an early Wisconsin environmentalist, visited the Santa Barbara oil spill site and later said it inspired him to organize “a nationwide teaching on the environment”.
The oil spill was not the only US environmental crisis in the 1960s. The links between large-scale overuse of the pesticide DDT and damaged ecosystems—including declining populations of bald eagles—were the subject of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, “Silent Spring.”
A raft of far-reaching federal environmental legislation was enacted in the early 1970s, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the passage of the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972).