The Oil Spill Heard ‘Round the Country

Times Staff Writer

From a large crack on the bottom of the Santa Barbara Channel, about 5 miles off the coastline, a few barrels of oil bubble to the surface each day.

The oil slick and the nearby Unocal Corp. drilling platform Alpha are the last visible vestiges of the worst oil spill in the nation’s history.

Twenty years ago today, on Jan. 28, 1969, a “blowout’ erupted below the platform and, before it was plugged, more than 3 million gallons of crude oil spewed from drilling-induced cracks in the channel floor.

For weeks national attention was focused on the spill’s disturbing, dramatic images. Oil-soaked birds, unable to fly, slowly dying on the sand. Waves so thick with crude oil that they broke on shore with an eerie silence. Thirty miles of sandy beaches coated with thick sludge. Hundreds of miles of ocean covered with an oily, black sheen.

But the spill’s impact went far beyond the fouled beaches. The disaster is considered to be a major factor in the birth of the modern-day environmental movement.


It Was ‘the Spark’

“The blowout was the spark that brought the environmental issue to the nation’s attention,” said Arent Schuyler, lecturer emeritus in environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara. “People could see very vividly that their communities could bear the brunt of industrial accidents. They began forming environmental groups to protect their communities and started fighting for legislation to protect the environment.”

During the next few years there was more environmental legislation than at any time in the nation’s history. In 1969, Congress passed the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact studies before any federal action can be taken. California adopted similar legislation in 1970. A wave of national environmental legislation followed, including clean air and water acts, and laws that protected sensitive coastal areas and endangered species.

The spill caused many people to doubt the safety claims of the oil industry and the government, said Michael Paparian, state director of the Sierra Club. Environmental activism gained widespread support, he said, and in the two years after the oil spill, Sierra Club membership doubled.

Asking Questions

“Before all the publicity about Santa Barbara there was much more trust in the country,” Paparian said. “The spill created the mood for people to ask questions about other environmental issues, such as nuclear energy.

“It was a turning point for a lot of things and added credibility to the lobbying efforts of groups like the Sierra Club. We’d point out the risks of certain projects and we’d have a real catastrophe to back up our claims.”

Within days of the spill, residents formed their own organization called Get Oil Out (GOO) to battle offshore oil development. At its peak, GOO had 2,500 members and the organization, along with other environmental groups, was successful in stalling oil activity in the channel. The state Lands Commission banned all oil drilling in state waters until 1974, and during the rest of the decade exploration in both state and federal water was limited.

But in the early 1980s huge offshore oil deposits were found north of Santa Barbara and the Reagan Administration was eager for development. There are now 22 offshore platforms off Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, and the number could double by the year 2000, according to Santa Barbara County officials.

The forces for oil development are so powerful in Santa Barbara that it is “no longer realistic to get oil out,” said GOO board member Robert English. The 500 remaining members, instead, have changed their emphasis.

“Our name is no longer meaningful,” English said. “We’ve recognized the awful truth that they are going to develop oil and there’s nothing we can do to stop them. Our main thrust now is to try to limit the operations as much as we can and try to make them as safe as possible.”

The Santa Barbara disaster was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Unocal, known then as Union Oil. At the time, federal regulations required protective “casing"--steel lining cemented into place around drilling holes--set to a minimum depth of 300 feet below the ocean floor. The casing helps contain pressure and prevent blowouts. But Unocal secured a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey and set the casing 61 feet short of the federal minimum--well above the point where the blowout occurred.

Unstable Footing

The channel floor in the area is so unstable that when the legs of platform Alpha were set on the shale bottom, they triggered oil and gas seepage. The Geological Survey’s standards for drilling in federal waters were much less stringent than California’s, which required protective casing to a depth of 1,200 feet below the ocean floor.

“No question about it, the casing was the source of the problem . . .,” said Barry Lane, head of public relations for Unocal. “With adequate casing, they would have been able to contain the pressure.”

But Lane said improved technology would prevent such a blowout from occurring now. Today, he said, Unocal uses up to 4,000 feet of “multiple casing” on its wells.

While blowouts similar to the one in Santa Barbara are rare, there have been “dozens of other major oil spills during the past few years” around the world, Schuyler said.

The Santa Barbara spill has been frequently invoked by opponents of the Interior Department’s proposal for offshore drilling off Mendocino and Humboldt counties. They say heavy tanker traffic would increase the risks of a spill much worse than the 1969 disaster.

In the Santa Barbara spill, more than 10,000 loons and western grebes died, said Michael Foster, a professor of marine science at San Jose State University. There was “widespread damage” to coastline sea grass and other underwater flora, he said. And large numbers of sea worms, shoreline barnacles, sand flies and beetles died.

Foster said the damage would have been far worse if the blowout had occurred closer to shore. Also, heavy storms helped disperse the oil. As a result, a relatively small number of fish died.

The gusher erupted during a normal drilling operation as the crew withdrew pipe from the well. Oil spewed from the channel floor at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour. It took Unocal more than a month to significantly limit the oil flow.

Local governmental agencies and the state sued the oil company and the Geological Survey and eventually settled out of court for about $10 million.