By Miriam Raftery
Photo: 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, UCSB collection
April 29, 2017 (San Diego) – The Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969 was the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history at the time. Three million gallons of crude oil contaminated the ocean and beaches with thick, black goo. Oil bubbled from the blown well and from cracks in the sea bed, killing countless sea birds, seals and other marine life.
The last remaining oil derrick off California's coast is slated to be decommissioned, Public News Service reported last week. But now an executive order by President Donald Trump could result in offshore oil wells again pumping in the waters off California.
The toxic pollutants lingered for years; as a student at the University of California, Santa Barbara in the late ‘70s, everyone kept turpentine to clean tar off your feet if you walked at the beach and once, I had to cut chunks of my hair off after an ocean swim when a large clump of tar became stuck in my hair. The odor of tar remained in the air, years after the spill, and the finish on my car was pitted from tar granules in the air we had to breathe.
That spill launched the environmental movement, leading to passage of the National Environmental Policy Act signed into law by President Richard Nixon that same year, and the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. The environmental disaster affected me personally, motivating me to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies and a minor in political science in hopes of helping to prevent such a fiasco from every occurring again.
Today, the Santa Barbara spill of 1969 ranks as the third worst oil spill, surpassed by the Exxon Valdez off Alaska and the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. I visited Alaska two decades after the Exxon Valdez disaster, and you could still see black globs of oil washing onto rocks along the shore. Yet another oil spill occurred off Santa Barbara in 2015, thankfully much smaller, but an ugly reminder of how swiftly our pristine beaches can become toxic waste dumps, harming both the environment and our tourism-based economy in California.
I knew workers who went to the Gulf to help with cleanup efforts after the Deepwater Horizon spill. Privately, I was told actions were taken to sink much of that oil to the bottom of the sea, where it remains –a ticking time bomb that continues to slowly pollute the waters that produce much of the seafood the nation consumes. Some felt ill from the petrochemicals to which they were exposed.
So I felt sick to my stomach at news that President Donald Trump this week signed an executive order to open up vast tracts of the Pacific, Arctic, and Atlantic oceans to new oil and gas drilling, ostensibly to “make America energy secure” and “create greater prosperity” for all Americans. He has asked the Department of Interior to study new oil and natural gas drilling off California’s coast.
Many political leaders in California have long sought a permanent ban on new offshore drilling. Trump’s action unravels protections put in place by President Barack Obama, a plan that did not include any new drilling leases off our coast through at least 2022.
Trump’s order will face legal challenges. The first legal volley has been fired by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who announced Friday, “We will vigorously oppose new drilling off the shores of our coast. California is leading the way in clean energy production and policies that preserve our state’s pristine natural resources.” California’s Attorney General concludes, “Instead of taking us backwards, the federal government should work with us to advance the clean energy economy that’s creating jobs, providing energy, and preserving California’s natural beauty.”