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Union Oil Spill Disaster sparks a movement

Three million gallons of oil surged through the ruptured sea floor of the Santa Barbara Channel on January 29th, 1969 – the result of a blowout of Union Oil’s Platform A. Oil workers had drilled a well 3,500 feet below the ocean floor and riggers attempted to retrieve the pipe in order to replace a drill bit when the blowout occurred.

For eleven days, oil workers struggled to cap the rupture but they could not stop 200,000 gallon of crude oil from bubbling to the surface and spreading into an 800 mile slick aided by wind and ocean swells. The resulting devastation killed upward of 10,000 seabirds and incoming tides brought corpses of dead seals and dolphins whose blowholes had been clogged with oil. Gray whales who used the channel as their migration route to their calving and breeding grounds in Baja California avoided the channel. Incoming tides brought the thick tar to beaches from Rincon Point to Goleta, marring 35 miles of coastline and the slick moved south, Oiled bird. http://www.biosbcc.net/ocean/marinesci/06future/olhum.htmtarring Anacapa Island’s Frenchy’s Cove and beaches on Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands.

People rushed to the scene to do what they could. Shorebirds like plovers, godwits and willets that feed on sand creatures disappeared but diving seabirds were hardest hit. Grebes, cormorants and other seabirds were so sick, their feathers so soaked in oil that it was easy for rescuers to catch them. Birds were bathed in Polycomplex A-11, medicated, and placed under heat lamps to stave off pneumonia. The survival rate was less than 30 percent for those who were treated. Many more died on the beach and the detergents used to disperse the oil threatened many birds that had managed to survive the oil. The chemicals robbed feathers of the natural waterproofing used to keep seabirds afloat.

Union Oil’s Platform A ruptured because of inadequate protective casing. The oil company had been given special permission by the U.S. Geological Survey to cut corners and operate the platform with casings below federal and California standards. Because the oil rig was beyond California’s three-mile coastal zone, the rig did not have to comply with state standards.

People were saddened and outraged by the incident. Many consider the publicity surrounding the spill a major impetus to the environmental movement. In the spring following the oil spill, Earth Day was born nationwide.

Only days after the spill began, Get Oil Out (GOO) was founded in Santa Barbara. Founder Bud Bottoms urged the public to cut down on driving, burn oil company credit cards and boycott gas stations associated with offshore drilling. Volunteers helped the organization gather 100,000 signatures on a petition banning offshore oil drilling. Union Oil suffered millions in losses from the clean-up effort, payments to fishermen and local businesses and lawsuits. The reputation of oil companies had changed irrevocably.

Said Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil:

“ I don’t like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”

Santa Barbara NewsPress Editor Thomas Storke:

Never in my lifetime have I ever seen such an aroused populace at the grassroots level. This oil pollution has done something that I have never seen – it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.”

U.S. President Richard Nixon:

It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people. What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.

Many credit the 1969 oil spill with rousing the environmental movement. Get Oil Out!, Save Our Shores and other groups found their voice as a result of the spill and there was clearly a growing community of people seeking to protect our marine environment. A moratorium on offshore oil drilling in California was instituted and marine sanctuaries were designated to further protect our natural resources.

You and all our supporters carry on this important mission of ocean stewardship but we must be ever vigilant in our quest to prevent disasters like the Santa Barbara spill from happening again. Despite a governor who has professed his commitment to enforce an oil drilling ban for California’s coast, lawmakers like Congressman Richard Pombo continue their efforts overturn the decades-old moratorium.


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Make your voice heard. Let Congress know that you support the moratorium and that a catastrophe like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill must never Take action!happen again.