The pictures looked so familiar – the ruined rig, a spreading stain of oil, birds and wildlife dying, a massive effort to clean up the deadly spill.
But instead of depicting the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, the photographs I was looking at in the library of the Santa Barbara, California Historical Museum showed a spill that happened four decades ago.
It was an event that changed Americans’ attitudes toward the environment forever.
Today, Santa Barbara is an affluent, laid-back beach town set between the mountains and the sea, with hardly a piece of litter to mar its pristine beaches.
On a recent morning, the only sounds to be heard along the shore were the lapping of waves and the whoops of teenagers doing tricks on skateboards.
But in January 1969, it was the scene of a catastrophe.
That is when Union Oil Company’s Platform A blew out a few kilometres offshore, spewing tens of thousands of barrels of crude into the Santa Barbara Channel.
On a foggy June day recently, I walked along the beach with John McKinney, a prolific Californian nature writer.
“Right here and everywhere else on the coast it was black tar,” McKinney said, gesturing broadly. “It was thick, black tar covering everything.”
McKinney was a 16-year-old high school student and boy scout living in Los Angeles in 1969. When he heard the first reports of the spill, he jumped into his 1963 Dodge Dart and headed north to Santa Barbara – one of thousands who volunteered to help clean up the spill.
He was put to work rescuing oil-soaked sea-birds.
“It was my job to wander through the muck on these beaches and pull screaming birds from the tar,” he said.
“I pulled out some birds alive, but many more were dead. Muirs, grebes, gulls, pelicans – all dead or dying.”
An estimated 10,000 birds were killed by the toxic mess, along with uncounted numbers of seals, sea lions, otters and dolphins.
Television network news programmes broadcast pictures of the dying wildlife and public outrage grew in California and across the US.
Energising a movement
Corporate attitudes – or at least public relations spin – were different back then.
Fred Hartley, the Union Oil president, said: “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”
|An estimated 10,000 birds were killed
by the toxic mess
The defilement of such a beautiful coast energised the fledgling US environmental movement.
Along with events such as the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and growing evidence of ecological destruction and species extinction, the spill, says Santa Barbara University life sciences professor Josh Schimel, was a tipping point.
“It was a little bit like throwing mud on the Mona Lisa,” he said. “It was a big kick in the head that really got people to wake up.”
By the following year, the first Earth Day was observed by hundreds of thousands of Americans, and politicians, including Richard Nixon, the then president, took note of the movement’s growing power.
Within three years of the Santa Barbara spill, Nixon and the US Congress established the Environmental Protection Agency and enacted the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. They proved to be the legal foundations of modern environmental policy.
A new era
Gradually, over the years, the application of these and other laws drastically cut air pollution, reduced toxic chemicals in the environment and made it possible for fish to return to once-poisoned rivers.
“As a result of that legislation that was passed in the early 1970s, we really did a remarkable job of cleaning up our day-to-day environment,” Schimel said.
The Santa Barbara spill helped usher in a new era of environmental consciousness.
The question now is will the much larger and more devastating BP Gulf oil spill have a similar long-term impact?
Barack Obama, the US president, among others, are urging Americans to see the spill as clear evidence that continued reliance on oil to power the economy is folly. They want people to make a firm determination that the country must break its oil addiction.
“There are going to be criminal cases, civil cases, new laws will be proposed,” Schimel said.
“How much that ultimately changes things like how we view oil, I don’t know. Whether this will galvanise us to really embrace the idea of alternative energy as the future of the country, or whether the anger will pass, and people will settle back into their normal modes of operation until the next disaster.”
John McKinney, whose experience in 1969 led to a career as a nature writer, is sceptical.
“We haven’t removed a single rig,” he said ruefully, “since Platform A from Union Oil blew out 41 years ago.”