50th Anniversary Of Santa Barbara Oil Spill: An Environmental Turning Point In 1969, oil from an offshore well left beaches in Santa Barbara, Calif., coated with crude and littered with dead birds. The country's reaction helped create the modern environmental movement.
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How California's Worst Oil Spill Turned Beaches Black And The Nation Green

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

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

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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.


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