Santa Barbara oil spill four decades ago resulted in historic efforts to protect the environment

“Tonight the permanent seal of the oil spill is underway,” Diane Sawyer told her ABC World News Tonight audience this week. While the “relief well” won’t be drilled until later this month, Sawyer – and most other media commentators – couldn’t hold back gushers of optimism that the “final fix” (as Sawyer’s writers put it) of the BP oil spill was at hand.

The desire for good news is understandable, since what was left of BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig had been pouring out nothing but bad news – and about 5 million barrels of crude oil – into the Gulf of Mexico since it blew up on April 21.

For many Californians, the BP disaster stirred memories of Union Oil’s Santa Barbara oil spill in January 1969. That disaster ended a decade of feverish construction of drilling rigs in the Santa Barbara channel and led to historic responses by the federal government to protect the environment.

So far, the Gulf oil spill has resulted in nothing approaching the response to the Santa Barbara spill, even though the BP crude oil spill is 50 times greater.

The Santa Barbara spill, which occurred at the height of the Vietnam War, spawned:

The national environmental movement, signaled by the first Earth Day in April 1970
The National Environmental Policy Act, instituting a federal role in environmental protection
Creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970
Passage of the first federal Clean Waters Act in 1972

The president at the time? Republican Richard Nixon.

This black-gunk-covered beach is how the Santa Barbara Harbor seawall looked after the 1969 spill


About mountain barry

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., I grew up in a beautiful small town, where I could bicycle to the local golf course and to the Buffalo Bills training camp. My dad was from Kentucky and was a Naval officer in WW II. My mom was from a similar small town and could beat my dad at golf. I started my first publication, a weekly newspaper, in 9th grade, and have been at it ever since: college newspaper, graduate school, college press service, daily newspapers in New York, North Carolina and Kansas, business journals in Kansas and California; also corporate communications/p.r. in Kansas and the SF Bay Area. I have two beautiful children, one extraordinary grandson, three remarkable stepchildren and a patient, loving wife who also happens to be an eBay trading assistant. My dogs, cat, gardens and the basketball goal in the driveway round out the picture of my home in a small town in the redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where mornings are foggy and afternoons are sunny.
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One Response to Santa Barbara oil spill four decades ago resulted in historic efforts to protect the environment

  1. Historical footnote:
    Actually the seeds of the first Earth Day weren’t sown by US Senator Gaylord Nelson on a napkin on a plane, but in a bucket of oil dumped on the head of Interior Secretary Walter Hickel by student environmental activists at a conference of college newspaper editors in Crystal City, VA, across the river from DC, less than a month after the Santa Barbara spill.

    Yes, Nelson was a pro-environment advocate, but his support of Earth Day, which was by the way organized as a teach-in by these same students on campuses across the US, was in response to a new groundswell of public support for environmental regulations. IIt should be remembered that politicians, at least the better ones, lead not by initiating mass movements, but by responding to them.

    It’s worth noting that Nelson was not one of the two US senators to vote against giving the President authority to wage war in Vietnam (he later voted against the first appropriations bill.)

    He actually was beat to the punch in responding to public sentiment after Santa Barbara by none other than California native President Richard Nixon, who signed a presidential order in January 1970 giving the federal government control over water quality, and pushed and supported creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the first federal Clean Water Act.

    Ironically, two weeks after Earth Day, student antiwar protestors were shot and killed at Kent State and Jackson State. Nixon’s response to the antiwar movement was different from his response to the Santa Barbara spill: He escalated the air and ground war and created a secret group of “plumbers” to wiretap, infiltrate and burglarize all perceived opponents, eventually even his Democratic political opponent, anti-war candidate George McGovern.

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