How the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill sparked Earth Day

In 1969, a blowout on an offshore oil platform spewed more than 3 million gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. It was the largest oil spill off America’s coast at the time and sparked environmental policy change, and the creation of Earth Day.

Pacific Standard Magazine reporters Max Ufberg and Kate Wheeling interviewed over a dozen people whose lives were directly impacted by the spill.

Here are some  of the stories they heard:

I got an anonymous call. For some reason I thought it was one of the workers out at the platform. I answered the phone and they said something like, ‘The ocean is boiling. The bottom of the ocean exploded.‘”

– Bob Sollen, former Santa Barbara News-Press reporter

“It was horrific – oil all the way up to the high tide line. There were dead animals, dead mammals, dead birds, dead fish.”

– Susan Hazard, administrator with Santa Barbara Waterfront

“You go to the beach and you couldn’t hear the waves. All the ocean was black. People just stood their crying. We figured it was all over for Santa Barbara.”

– Bud Bottoms, co-founder of Get Oil Out

KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian spoke with Ufberg and Wheeling about what happened next.

More than 3,600 seabirds died in the wake of the oil spill. (Photo: Courtesy of Bud Bottoms)

How did this spill result in Earth Day?

Kate Wheeling: The origin story, as it was told to me by Denis Hayes, the national coordinator for the first Earth Day, was that Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin was flying from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a meeting right around the time the spill happened. That huge, 800 square-mile oil slick was out there on the ocean, and he could see it out the plane window. That’s what gave him the impetus to organize Earth Day. He had this idea that we should have a day where, across college campuses, professors do a teach-in where they talk about the environment.

The water around Platform A appeared to boil as crude oil and gas bubbled to the surface. (Photos: Courtesy of Bud Bottoms)

Was the first Earth Day in Santa Barbara, or all over the place?

Wheeling: It was all over the country. I think about 20 million people participated.

Who is one person you interviewed that really stuck out to you?

Bob Sollen, a former Santa Barbara News-Press reporter. (Photo: Jonas Jungblut)

Max Ufberg: Bob Sollen had the biggest impact on me. He was the Santa Barbara News Press reporter who broke the story and continued tracking it through the next year. He’s about 95 years old now. To get to sit and talk with this man, who I would argue played a huge role in the cementing of environmental journalism, was pretty incredible.

Did the concept of environmentalism exist before this?

Wheeling: People were interested in conserving the environment, but it was for commerce. They wanted to protect our rivers and soil so that we could increase crop yields. It was all for the benefit of human society. I think with the ’69 oil spill, people had this realization that we should protect the environment for the environment’s sake. This concept of environmental rights emerged. UCSB history professor Rod Nash wrote this declaration of environmental rights and it was presented at this conference that was on the one year anniversary of the spill. He then went on to found the first environmental studies program in the U.S.

Ufberg: It’s also important to think about the cultural awareness surrounding other issues like civil rights, women’s rights and war at the time. When this spill happened, people were already mobilizing and had protest in their blood.

What regulatory changes came out of this spill?

Wheeling: One of the most important pieces of legislation that followed the spill was the National Environmental Policy Act, which said that government organizations had to do environmental reviews of development projects.

Two years ago, Santa Barbara had another oil spill. It was a fraction of the size of the 1969 spill, but do you get the sense that there’s still a lot of work to be done if you’re trying to fight that environmental fight?

Wheeling: It’s certainly gotten a lot better since 1969, but I think it drives home the fact that we need these environmental regulations and we need to protect them. There’s a lot of push back right now against regulation; and the 1969 and 2015 oil spills are examples of why they’re so important.

Ufberg: Working on this story reinforced to me the power of community organization. Not just mobilization, but true coherence and thought behind a movement. You can not only catch the ear of policy makers, but you can change their vote.