Southern California No Stranger to Oil Disasters; '69 Spill Spurred Environmental Changes

Southern California is no stranger to oil leaks and spills. The 126,000-gallon leak this weekend at Huntington Beach was about 115 miles from Santa Barbara, site of the third-largest oil spill in American history in 1969, the Associated Press reported.

The 1969 catastrophe is remembered as one of the top human-caused disasters in the United States, as the Santa Barbara Channel was flooded with about 3.5 million to 4.2 million gallons of crude in a 10-day period. The spill was caused by a blowout six miles offshore on a Union Oil drilling platform.

Santa Barbara residents were given no input on the controversial Union Oil platform that was drilled into federal waters. During the frugal construction before the 1969 spill, regulations tried to call for protective steel casing to extend at least 300 feet below the ocean floor, but the company cut corners and obtained a waiver, installing only 239 feet.

The tragedy is known for giving rise to modern environmental awareness and movements.

President Richard Nixon visited the site in March of 1969, disappointed in the aftermath of the tragedy.

"It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people," Nixon told reporters.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

California Oil Spill reminds of 1969 disaster
The California coast oil leak this weekend took place 115 miles from the site of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill. Above, workers collect oil from Santa Barbara, California, on February 7, 1969. Associated Press

In the aftermath of the (1969) spill, thousands of oil-coated birds perished and photos of the carnage on beaches were widely circulated in newspapers and magazines.

Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, an early environmentalist, visited the Santa Barbara spill site and later said it inspired him to organize "a nationwide teach-in on the environment."

The oil spill was not the only U.S. environmental crisis in the 1960s. The links between rampant overuse of the pesticide DDT and damaged ecosystems—including the dwindling population of bald eagles—were the subject of Rachel Carson's seminal 1962 book, Silent Spring.

A raft of far-reaching federal environmental legislation was enacted in the early 1970s, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the passage of the Clean Air Act (1970) and Clean Water Act (1972).

"It's frustrating that spills like this keep happening," said Damon Nagami, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, as he walked along cordoned-off areas of Huntington Beach. "I grew up near here, so this feels really personal.

"These are entirely preventable catastrophes," he said, though he added that managing offshore drilling is complex because "there are lots of regulatory bodies with overlapping responsibilities, depending on whether the activity is happening in federal waters, state waters or international waters."

Oil spills damage coastal ecosystems, marine life and, if the oil-laden water moves into storm drainage systems, local communities. "Once the oil gets into an ecosystem, it's hard to get out," Nagami said. "The impacts are felt for years, for decades."

Don Anair, a research and deputy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said oil spills are "a very visible image of our reliance on fossil fuels."

"We should be doing all we can to make sure the infrastructure is as safe as possible, but even that won't fully eliminate the risk of oil spills," he said. "The longer-term solution here has to be transitioning to using other sources of energy" to power our vehicles.

According to the EPA, the transportation sector is the country's largest primary contributor to climate change, responsible for around 29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

California Oil Spill reminds of 1969 disaster
The California oil leak this weekend took place at Huntington Beach, 115 miles away from the site of the 1969 Santa Barbara spill. Above, state forestry conservation crews work to clean up the oil in Santa Barbara on February 6, 1969. Wally Fong/Associated Press