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The 1969 Oil Spill That Launched the Modern Environmental Movement

The 1969 Oil Spill That Launched the Modern Environmental Movement
Associated Press

If you were to gaze out over the California waves on this date in 1969, your eyes might encounter an incoming tide of thick, black filth. That's because on January 28 that year, a new drilling rig operated by Union Oil, Platform "A," suffered a blowout and was violently flooding the ocean with loads upon loads of crude.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill still ranks in the top tier of the United States' human-caused disasters; the only larger spills came from the 1989 Exxon Valdez crash and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon calamity. By the time workers sealed the Union well more than a week later, more than 4 million gallons of oil had escaped into the sensitive marine environment. Miles of California beaches were turned into hellish morasses of reeking petroleum, littered with the dead bodies of seals and sea lions and innumerable limp seabirds.

Now, on the anniversary of one of the most important catalysts of the modern environmental movement, scientists at NOAA are taking a fresh look at the massive disaster. They've imported data from the decades ago into a GIS-based disaster-monitoring map known as ERMA, allowing fresh technology to tell the spill's story in a way that was impossible in 1969. 

When you first visit the map, you see an amorphous blob showing the extent of the floating oil. Note that it's a rough approximation of the bulk of the spill – wandering oil was found roughly 100 miles north in Pismo Beach and more than twice that distance down in Mexico:

Click on the red markers and you'll pull up images of the stricken platform and of Santa Barbara Harbor tarred with the spreading oil slick. The bubbling to the side of the drilling rig was a result of natural gas ripping new holes in the sea floor and rising to the surface. This secondary source of leaked petroleum would not run empty until almost a year later:

The scientists have an interesting nugget of history trivia regarding the aerial photos that came out of this spill. They write:

Yet, this oil spill was notable for its technology use in one surprising way. It was the first time a CIA spy plane had ever been used for non-defense related aerial photography. While classified information at the time, the CIA and the U.S. Geological Survey were actually partnering to use a Cold War spy plane to take aerial photos of the Santa Barbara spill (they used a U-2 plane because they could get the images more quickly than from the passing CORONA spy satellite). But that information wasn’t declassified until the 1990s.

The map also contains bird-population data based on wildlife surveys from 1975 to 2008. The NOAA team doesn't offer much insight over what this distribution bodes, but it's known that birds perished by the thousands. It's also known that the president of Union Oil, Fred Hartley, didn't give a hoot about that, declaring: "I don't like to call it a disaster, because there has been no loss of human life. I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds."

When they get around to it, perhaps the map's creators can add these other historical photos, as well:


Conservation workers gather oil-soaked hay from the waters around Santa Barbara. (AP)


Oil darkens the waves and a seawall near Santa Barbara Harbor. (USGS / Wikipedia)


Birds with feathers saturated with oil wait to die. (Wally Fong / AP)

Top image: Work crews made up of prison convicts clean oil-logged straw from Santa Barbara's beaches in February, 1969. (Wally Fong / AP)

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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