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The OTHER Santa Barbara Oil Spill and the Birth of Environmentalism

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This week we were treated to another oil spill that will cost millions to clean up and endanger many different species of marine wildlife. A pipe that was installed in 1987 burst close to Refugio State Beach in south Santa Barbara, spilling around 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the surrounding waters. California Governor Jerry Brown has since declared a state of emergency in Santa Barbara County and crews have set up blockades that are designed to contain two visible oil slicks.

What is interesting about this relatively small incident is that it comes nearly 46 years after another Santa Barbara oil spill that sparked the modern day environmental movement.

A new article in Vox describes how the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 was the first oil spill to captivate a national audience.

The spill began on January 28, 1969, after a blowout on Union Oil’s Platform A — located offshore in the Santa Barbara channel. It took 10 days to plug the leak with cement, and in the interim, up to 4.2 million gallons of crude oil had spilled out.

To add a little perspective, let me ask a question. Have you ever been to Santa Barbara? No!?!? Well its just about the best place ever. I’m serious. They don’t call it the American Riviera for no reason.

So when oil slicks encroach on breathtaking views of the California coastline, people will notice and get angry. The spill of 1969 was the first time the national spotlight fixated on an environmental crisis and cast a major oil company as the villain.

The combination of the Santa Barbara oil spill, Ohio’s famously polluted Cayuhoga River catching fire, and Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, a work that detailed the effect DDT had on birds, was a huge shock to the American conscience. So much so that people started to organize and get angry.

In reaction to the spill, people lit their gas credits on fire, the California Legislature put a moratorium on all new offshore drilling platforms, and in 1970 Congress passed the National Environmental Protection Act, an ordinance that required corporations to consider the environmental impacts of any new projects they were undertaking. A few months later, Nixon singed an executive order that created the EPA.

Since then, our passion for environmental protections has subsided but our environmental accidents have not. Maybe the events in Santa Barbara will inspire new reflection amongst elected officials about how best to mitigate the impact that we have on the environment….. Ha ha, no of course it won’t. Yet it is interesting that at one point in our modern history, we had legislators who were able to quickly react to legitimate issues that effected our natural resources.

Photo Source: USA Press

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