May 22, 2015

’69 and ’15 – A Tale of Two Santa Barbara Oil Spills

An aerial photo shows the extent of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach. Photo:

By now you’ve seen the horrific images of May 19th’s Santa Barbara Oil Spill at Refugio State Beach. The lack of responsibility and regulatory compliance from the culprit – Plains All American Pipeline Company – has caused an uproar across the region and exposed the company’s sorted history of oil spills and damage to the environment all over the country. To many Santa Barbara residents this scenario seems all too familiar.

The crude ran down the culvert and out onto the shoreline after the pipeline rupture on Tuesday morning. Photo: USCG

Back in January of 1969, Santa Barbara beaches suffered a catastrophic oil spill from Union Oil Platform A just 5 miles off the coast of Summerland. This spill sent 3 MILLION gallons of crude into the sea after a pipe blowout on the sea floor caused a fracture that spewed oil for days. About 35 miles of coastline was covered in oil 6 inches thick, and over 800 square miles of ocean water was affected according to a UCSB Geography Department report. The report also stated that “innumerable” fish had been killed, along with thousands of sea birds and countless shellfish, dolphins, and sea lions.

The spill was a shock to Americans at the time as most had never seen an industrial accident before or ever thought of the consequences of oil extraction. In the following days after the spill, the public joined together to demand stricter regulations and a ban on offshore drilling as President Nixon surveyed the site. The result was the birth of the Environmental Movement as we know it. The Environmental Protection Agency was born, many new regulations against oil and gas industries were enacted, the Clean Air Act was introduced, the first Earth Day was organized, and the California Coastal Commission was established by voter initiative.

It would be nice to say that we have come a long way since that spill 46 years ago, but the similarities between both spills are frightening. In both cases it’s easy to see the federal regulators asleep at the wheel, the oil company CEO’s with their feet in their mouths, and politicians surveying the scene while vowing for change. Even the clean-up efforts haven’t changed much, if at all. Old-fashioned booms are still the go-to method for skimming the surface oil off of the water – a practice that has not been updated in over 50 years! Volunteers are still shoveling up the crude by hand on the shoreline, and rescuing wildlife one animal at a time and cleaning them by hand. While new technology has been used for surveying the site, the clean-up is still largely done without any new innovations in technology or machinery.

In 1969, workers used hay to soak up the oil, a much cleaner and safer process than using chemical dispersants like those used during the 2010 BP Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Photo:

While the Refugio Oil Spill may be much smaller in comparison (105,000 gallons total, with 21,000 leaking into the ocean), it will likely be just as important as the 1969 oil spill has been, but in a different way. This is due to the amount of media available today on mobile devices. As the public descended on the scene, images flooded social media from first hand witnesses to the spill. Disturbing posts on Facebook and Instagram of dying birds, lobsters, and octopus could be the best way to galvanize the public and cause change in the way we vote going forward. Ironically, this spill comes just 7 months after Santa Barbara County voters failed to passĀ a ballot measureĀ that would prevent future high impact petroleum projects in the county.

  • santa_barbara_oil_spill
    The USCG uses booms to gather surface oil off Refugio State Beach after the spill. Photo:

A big thanks goes out to the US Coast Guard, the USGS, and the UCSB Marines Sciences Department, as well as all the volunteers and organizations helping in the clean-up efforts.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *