Total cleanup time for most of the beaches hit by the initial spill was about 45 days, although globs of tar continued to wash ashore due to the high rate from the sea-bed fissures, and bigger patches came ashore during subsequent spills. Most beaches were open to the public by June 1, although some of the rocky areas on the shore were not cleaned until around August 15. Still, oil continued to pool and wash up on shore. On August 26th, 1969, the harbor was so full of oil that once again it had to be closed, with cleanup crews spreading straw from boats to bunch the oil up again, just as they had six months earlier. And in December 1969, another spill occurred at the Union Oil lease – this one from a underwater pipeline serving Platform A. A 50-square-mile slick formed before the break in the pipeline was detected. The pipeline was equipped with automatic pressure-reduction devices and shut-off systems supposed to guard against such failures. But none of those safeguards functioned at time. The second spill was most conspicuous at Carpinteria State Beach and Hobson County Park. Generally out in the Channel and ocean, oil from the main spill would persist into 1970, with large areas of crude still being observed at that time.
Economic losses resulting from the spill were difficult to estimate, but some figures did become available. In 1969, the tourist industry suffered considerably, but did recover in subsequent years. A class-action lawsuit awarded nearly $6.5 million to owners of beachfront homes, apartments, hotels, and motels. Commercial and recreational boat owners and nautical suppliers were awarded $1.3 million for property damage and loss of revenue. Commercial fishers lost access to some fisheries temporarily. Union Oil also settled a lawsuit filed by the State of California, County of Santa Barbara, and the towns of Santa Barbara and Carpinteria in the amount of $9.5 million for loss of property.
New Kind of “Due Process”
Still, in the years following the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, as state and federal authorities put into practice environmental protection policies, a new kind of “environmental due process” began to take hold. Major projects and decision making by government and business that could affect the environment were now dealt with differently. Impacts and possible alternatives were weighed and considered before approvals could be given – with all decisions made after public hearings and comment. The Santa Barbara Channel wasn’t the immediate beneficiary of these fundamental changes in environmental consideration. Indeed, more drilling rigs went in. In the years following the Santa Barbara oil spill, as the new laws kicked in, an “environmental due proc- ess” began to take hold… In Santa Barbara and elsewhere, it took time for the machinery of “environmental due process” to begin working. But gradually it did take hold – and it was a major change in thinking and foresight. New leases and/or drilling rig proposals had to be evaluated for their total environmental impact and some could be prohibited. Highway builders could no longer level urban communities for a freeway; untreated sewage or chemicals could not longer be discharged into rivers and streams; automakers had to equip cars with catalytic converters to clean up smog-causing exhausts; more wilderness areas, marine mammals, and wildlife were given protection. The environment was accorded new “standing,” both in the legal and lay sense of that term; it was not longer a “free” medium for polluters or exploiters; it was given a higher value and put on a more even footing with purely economic decisions and/or government dictums. And before long, environmental values and environmental protection would work their way into the earliest R&D stages of product development and even factory design and plant location siting. Even at the earliest stages of product invention and capital goods planning, protecting the environment became a consideration. Still, to this day, there are too many products, projects, and technologies that do not have before-the-fact environmental protection and life-cycle analysis built into them. All the more reason to push ahead with the fights that began in 1969 and 1970 at Santa Barbara, along the Cuyahoga River, and in the halls of the U.S. Congress.
See also at this website, “Environmental History,” a topics page with links to additional stories covering environmental issues. Thanks for visiting – and if you like what you find here, please make a donation to help support the research and writing at this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Date Posted: 22 February 2016
Last Update: 11 March 2016
Comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jack Doyle, “Santa Barbara Oil Spill: California, 1969,”
PopHistoryDig.com, February 22, 2016.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
|1969: Close up of Union Oil rig and the roiling surface waters from escaping oil & gas on the sea-bed below.
|Feb 11th, 1969: Part of the daily coverage the Los Angeles Times newspaper ran during the Santa Barbara oil spill.
|1969: Aerial photo of Union Oil rig after the blowout. Eventually, an 800-square-mile slick formed.
|Feb 6th, 1969: The Telegram-Tribune of San Luis Obispo reporting on the "miles of black ooze" that hit the beaches.
|1969: Associated Press photo of workers raking up straw used to absorb some of the crude oil that came ashore from the Union Oil blowout.
|1969: Life magazine photo of workers steam-cleaning oil stained rocks at Carpinteria, CA.
|1969: Volunteers working to save oiled sea bird following Santa Barbara spill. Telegram-Tribune, San Luis Obispo.
|1969: Life magazine photo of oil-splotched sea lion and cub on San Miguel Island off coast. Photo, Harry Benson.
|Feb 7, 1969: Sample of newspaper headlines used across the country during the Santa Barbara oil spill-- this one from the La Crosse Tribune in Wisconsin.
|July 1969: Study of the Santa Barbara oil spill commissioned by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration. Click for PDF file.
|1969: Santa Barbara citizen displays his "dead sea" placard during oil spill protest gathering.
|Various lawsuits were filed over the Santa Barbara spill in 1969, but most were not settled until several years later. This Associated Press story of July 1974 reports on one of those outcomes.
|One of a number of studies on the Santa Barbara oil spill that would appear in the years following the spill, this one published in 1972 by the Institute on Governmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
|1969: Early attempts to corral the Santa Barbara oil spill using boats and oil booms.
|1969: Santa Barbara clean-up crews “pitchforking” oil-soaked hay from corralled oil spill in harbor area. Photo, Bob Duncan.
|1969: Bulldozers formed piles of oil-soaked sand and cleanup wastes on the beaches in Santa Barbara that were hauled away to landfills by large trucks.
|1969: During oil spill cleanup in Montecito, a worker appears to be trying to retrieve something mired in the muck, possibly an oiled bird.
|1969: Life magazine photo of oil-stained boulders with oil rig on the far horizon. Boulders located at Santa Claus, south of Santa Barbara. Photo, Harry Benson.
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