50 years after the Santa Barbara oil spill: How the catastrophe sparked a modern environmental movement

Jan. 28, 2019, marks 50 years since the pristine shores and Pacific waters of Santa Barbara, California, were blemished and blackened by an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil that spewed out for months from a platform off the coast, forming an oil slick 35 miles long down the coastline across 800 square miles of ocean.

The blown-out oil well resulted in what was the largest oil spill in United States history at that time. The disaster killed thousands of marine animals as well as approximately 3,700 birds, according to the California Department of Fish and Game.

"If you've got a blowout, it isn't just contained in a small area of land," said Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen's Energy Program. The nonprofit organization focuses on the inadequacy of current environmental and taxpayer provisions in U.S. offshore drilling policies.

"The oil quickly disperses over large geographic areas, thereby exacerbating the environmental impact," Slocum told AccuWeather.

1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill - AP Photo
1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill - AP Photo

These birds, their wings so saturated with oil they're unable to fly, are among hundreds that faced death as a result of a vast oil slick off the southern California coast on Feb. 1, 1969. (AP Photo/Wally Fong)

Millions of Americans watched in horror as shocking images of oil-drenched sea birds, elephant seals, dolphins and other animals, some clinging to life and others already dead, played out during extensive news coverage on analog television sets across the country.

"Humans are a visually oriented species, so we need to see images of things to often move us to respond or take action," Slocum said. "The images of the massive oil contamination along the California coast was something that was very stunning to people."

The shock and alarm resulting from the catastrophe, along with the incident of the oil slick that caught fire on the Cuyahoga River five months later in Cleveland, Ohio, helped galvanize support for the birth of the modern environmental movement, culminating into what eventually became the first Earth Day in 1970.

The catastrophic spill

Workers on Platform A, an offshore oil rig owned and operated by El Segundo, California-based petroleum company Union Oil (known today as Unocal), were removing the drill pipe from a freshly bored well when "highly pressurized gas and oil leaked into the water through faults and fractures in the upper layer of the ocean floor," according to Pacific Standard.

The powerful explosion cracked the sea floor in five places, the Los Angeles Times reported, polluting the Pacific Ocean with crude oil at a rate of 1,000 gallons per hour.

Union Oil had not taken proper safety precautions, which led to the blowout. The U.S. Geological Survey had granted the company a waiver that allowed construction of a protective casing around the drilling hole; however, the casing did not meet federal minimum requirements at that time, falling 61 feet short of them.

"They capped it, cemented it and then it started leaking in other places," said Kathleen Rogers, president of Earth Day Network. About 100,000 barrels of oil leaked into the ocean.

Cleanup during 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill - AP Photo
Cleanup during 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill - AP Photo

Workmen using pitchforks, rakes and shovels attempt to clean up oil-soaked straw from the beach at Santa Barbara Harbor, California, Feb. 7, 1969. (AP Photo)

"It was quite a mess and devastating to the local wildlife, the fisheries were closed," Rogers told AccuWeather. "People across the country saw this beautiful place now dripping in oil. It went for miles down Santa Barbara all the way to Mexico, and they couldn't make it go away."

Birth of the modern environmental movement

In addition to the shocking images, a top oil company executive further fueled public outrage when he said of the disaster, "I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds," according to the Los Angeles times.

"When you see Santa Barbara in the context of what can and does happen today, it is remarkable how this oil spill spawned a generation of environmental activists," Rogers said.

The contamination of the ocean and coastline as well as the deaths of many animals drew global attention and sparked a turning point for environmental activism, spurring lawmakers to action.

"The biggest legacy [of the oil spill] is that President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)," Slocum said. The act, considered one of the most important federal environmental protections, was enacted on Jan. 1, 1970.

"NEPA was really revolutionary in that it forced the federal government, for the first time ever, to take into account the environmental impact of their decisions," Slocum said, adding that NEPA, along with the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1970, garnered strong bipartisan support.

The environmental movement led to the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970.

"The 20 million people that came out on the streets on that first Earth Day were responding to Santa Barbara, the Cuyahoga River fire, the toxic dumps and clusters of cancer," Rogers said.

Earth Day 1970 remains the largest human civic event in history, worldwide.

"Never before had you had 20 million people out on the streets [in support of] a single issue, and we may never again," Rogers said.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting