How California's Worst Oil Spill Turned Beaches Black And The Nation Green

Jan 28, 2019
Originally published on January 28, 2019 8:51 am

On January 28, 1969, an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., experienced a blowout. The result was an oil spill that at the time ranked as the largest in U.S. waters.

The disaster, which made headlines across the nation, helped create the modern environmental movement. It also led to restrictions on offshore drilling — restrictions the Trump Administration is trying to loosen.

The events that led to the spill began one morning on Platform A, a rig located about six miles from the coast and operated at the time by Union Oil.

Workers had already drilled four wells from the platform and were drilling a fifth when they ran into a problem.

"You punch into some of these oil reservoirs and you get a lot of back pressure," says Douglas McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

McCauley has brought me out to Platform A on a boat, which circles the rig as he talks.

He tells me that in this case, the back pressure overwhelmed the well's safety systems. This allowed crude oil and natural gas trapped thousands of feet down to rocket toward the surface.

"So they're taking these big drilling pipes and shoving them back down the hole and these gigantic steel blocks on top of that to seal off this blowout," McCauley says. It worked, but only for a few minutes.

"They had capped off the blowout successfully," McCauley says. "But they created so much pressure at the bottom of this well that it actually broke open the seabed."

"They had capped off the blowout successfully," says Douglas McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But they created so much pressure at the bottom of this well that it actually broke open the seabed."
Jon Hamilton / NPR

Better reinforcement of the well might have prevented the spill. But Union Oil had received a waiver from the government that allowed the company to drill without installing steel casing pipe to the depth usually required by federal regulations.

Unimpeded, oil and gas under tremendous pressure opened five separate gashes in the soft sandstone seabed. So much gas bubbled to the surface near Platform A that the water appeared to boiling. And oil from the underwater fissures began to form a slick that would eventually cover an area nearly the size of Chicago.

The effect on marine life was profound.

"Right where we're sitting right now you transformed from this ecosystem of amazing richness, amazing biodiversity, amazing biological activity into a sort of Armageddon of blackness," McCauley says.

It took a few days for the oil to reach Santa Barbara's famous beaches.

"I smelled it long before I saw it; it really stank around here," says Marc McGinnes, a lawyer who came down from San Francisco. "And when I looked at the oil on the beach, I cried."

McGinnes left his job at a big law firm to help launch a legal response to the spill. He would go on to become a key figure in the environmental efforts that grew out the event as well as a faculty member at UCSB.

President Richard Nixon talked with workers cleaning up the oily beach at Santa Barbara in March 1969.
AP

The spill received enough media attention that President Richard Nixon made a trip to survey the damage in a helicopter. He also visited an oil-soaked beach near Santa Barbara Harbor.

Nixon spent his time on the beach "walking around gingerly" to avoid stepping on the sticky blobs of oil, McGinnes says.

The oil killed thousands of birds and an unknown number of sea mammals. Hundreds of oiled birds that were still alive were taken to the Santa Barbara Zoo, which is just a few steps from the beach.

"At the time there was really no place or process to care for the oiled wildlife that was showing up on the beaches," says Nancy McToldridge, the zoo's director. "So the zoo closed its doors and concentrated its time and energy into taking in these oiled birds, treating them and then rehabbing them back out into the wild."

The suffering and deaths of so many animals helped get the public's attention and spur lawmakers to action. And 1969 marked a turning point for environmental activism.

Cleanup workers rake oil-soaked hay along a Santa Barbara beach in 1969, after an oil spill that was then the largest in U.S. history.
Bettmann / Getty Images

"The Santa Barbara oil spill really helped to take an issue that was growing and really convert it into legislative action and a whole body of environmental law at the federal level and also at the state level that we still have with us today," says Peter Alagona, a historian at UCSB.

The first Earth Day took place just over a year later in April of 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency was created in December of that year. Environmental laws passed or strengthened during this period included the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts.

One reason the 1969 oil spill had such an impact was that Santa Barbara was home to a lot of wealthy Republicans who had helped elect Nixon, Alagona says.

Nixon himself was no environmentalist, Alagona says, "but he realized during a time when there were many other extremely controversial, divisive issues like the Vietnam War for instance, that as American public concern grew about damage to the environment that this could potentially be a winning issue for him."

So Nixon signed the environmental legislation, even though many in his own party opposed it.

The oil slick visible around Platform A in the Santa Barbara Channel emanated from fissures in the seabed.
USGS

Today, Santa Barbara is much better prepared for an oil spill than it was in 1969. There's a 46-foot fast-response vessel in the harbor. And animals exposed to oil are cared for by a statewide group called the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.

The response system got a test in 2015, when an oil pipeline burst a few miles up the coast. Workers deployed thousands of feet of floating boom to help contain the spill and skimmer boats began removing the oil from the water's surface.

Meanwhile, members of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network sprang into action, rescuing and caring for oiled animals. And those animals were more likely to survive than the ones oiled in 1969.

"Many more animals survive now than they would have back in the '60s or '70s or even the '80s," says Julie Barnes, a veterinarian and vice president for animal health and care at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

That's partly because of what animal care experts learned from the Santa Barbara spill, Barnes says. But they've learned even more from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's got to the point that there's so many spills that for animals there's a highly organized system in place," Barnes says.

These days, the greatest environmental danger from oil probably isn't another spill, McCauley says. It's the climate change caused by burning all that oil.

Santa Barbara got a preview of what that might mean a year ago, he says. It came in the form of a mudslide that careened through the community of Montecito.

"There were boulders and trees traveling at like 22 miles per hour down the street," McCauley says. "It destroyed 100 houses and killed 21 people.

It's difficult to peg any one incident to climate change. But the mudslide followed the sort of extreme weather thought to accompany global warming.

"I think of that as being the most insidious, the worst thing the oil industry has done to our community," McCauley says.

An end to offshore drilling would help reduce the effects of climate change by reducing the supply of oil, he says.

But the Trump Administration seems headed in the other direction. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing a five-year plan expected to greatly increase offshore drilling in federally controlled waters, including those off the coast of Santa Barbara.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Fifty years ago today, a damaged oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., caused what was then the largest oil spill in the history of the United States. The public reaction helped to shape the modern environmental movement. It also led to restrictions on offshore drilling, restrictions the Trump administration is trying to roll back. Here's NPR's Jon Hamilton.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: The disaster started here, about 6 miles from shore.

DOUGLAS MCCAULEY: You can see behind us here Platform A, the sign right there on the rig.

HAMILTON: I'm on a boat with Douglas McCauley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We're circling the oil rig known as Platform A. McCauley says back in 1969, it was owned by Union Oil, and workers were drilling a new well.

MCCAULEY: And then, 10:45 a.m. January 28, they ran into a problem.

HAMILTON: The drill hit a pocket of gas and oil under enormous pressure. The result - a blowout. McCauley says crude oil and natural gas began rocketing to the surface.

MCCAULEY: So they're taking these big drilling pipes and shoving them back down the hole and then these gigantic steel blocks on top of that to seal off this blowout.

HAMILTON: It worked, briefly.

MCCAULEY: They had capped off the blowout successfully, but they created so much pressure at the bottom of this well that it actually broke open the seabed.

HAMILTON: Oil and gas began to pour through five separate fissures. Eventually, that created an oil slick on the surface that was nearly the size of Chicago. It took a few days for the oil to reach the coast. Mark McGinnis, a lawyer, came down from San Francisco to take a look.

MARK MCGINNIS: I smelled it long before I saw it. It really stank around here. And when I looked at the oil on the beach, I cried.

HAMILTON: McGinnis left his job at a big law firm to help mount a legal response to the spill. He soon became a leader in the environmental movement. McGinnis says a few weeks after the blowout, President Richard Nixon arrived in a helicopter.

MCGINNIS: (Imitating helicopter blades slapping).

HAMILTON: McGinnis says Nixon surveyed the slick from the air, then visited an oil-soaked beach to show his concern.

MCGINNIS: It was a matter of walking around gingerly to make sure that one's shoes - if you were the president wearing those shoes - didn't step in this stuff.

HAMILTON: By this time, hundreds of oiled birds were arriving at the Santa Barbara Zoo. Nancy McToldridge, the zoo's director, says there was nowhere else for them to go.

NANCY MCTOLDRIDGE: So the zoo closed its doors and concentrated its time and energy and - to taking in these oiled birds, treating them and then rehabbing them back out into the wild.

HAMILTON: Most didn't make it. But photos of oil-coated gulls and grebes and brown pelicans got the public's attention, and Peter Alagona, a historian at UCSB, says 1969 marked a turning point for environmental activism.

PETER ALAGONA: The Santa Barbara oil spill really helped to take an issue that was growing and really converting it into legislative action and a whole body of environmental law at the federal level and also at the state levels that we still have with us today.

HAMILTON: The first Earth Day took place just over a year later. Then the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, and Congress passed the Clean Water Act. Alagona says it probably helped that Santa Barbara was home to a lot of wealthy Republicans who had helped elect Nixon. He says Nixon himself was no environmentalist.

ALAGONA: But he realized, during a time when there were many other extremely controversial, divisive issues - like the Vietnam War, for instance - that as American public concern grew about damage to the environment - that this could potentially be a winning issue for him.

HAMILTON: Today, Santa Barbara is much better prepared for an oil spill. There's a 46-foot fast response vessel in the harbor ready to deploy oil containment booms. And there's a statewide group called the Oiled Wildlife Care Network ready to help sickened animals. Julie Barnes is a veterinarian at the zoo. She says animal experts learned a lot from the 1969 spill here and even more from the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989 and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

JULIE BARNES: Many more animals survive now than they would have back in the '60s or '70s or even in the '80s. The care that we can find for them now is phenomenal compared to the care that would have been provided in, you know, those early years of oil spills.

HAMILTON: Douglas McCauley says the greatest danger from oil these days probably isn't another spill. It's the climate change caused by burning all that oil. He says a year ago, Santa Barbara got a preview of what that might mean. It came in the form of a mudslide.

MCCAULEY: Boulders and trees rushing through the community traveling at, like, 22 miles an hour down the street. It destroyed a hundred houses and killed 21 people.

HAMILTON: McCauley says the mudslide was caused by the sort of extreme weather that accompanies global warming.

MCCAULEY: I think of that as being the most insidious, the worst thing that the oil industry has done to our community.

HAMILTON: McCauley says an end to offshore drilling could slow down climate change by reducing the supply of oil. But the Trump administration seems headed in the opposite direction. It's preparing a five-year plan to encourage offshore drilling in federally controlled waters, including those off the coast of Santa Barbara. Jon Hamilton, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MECCA:83'S "2AM SAMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.