On Jan. 28, 1969, an oil well blowout that occurred during drilling cracked the sea floor near Santa Barbara.
Oil and gas seeped into the Santa Barbara Channel from Union Oil Co.’s Platform A. The spill grew into a 35-mile-long slick that extended as far south as Ventura and as far north as Goleta and out to the Channel Islands, dropping an estimated 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean.
Now 50 years later, Santa Barbara residents who were there told the News-Press what they saw and did during and after the largest oil spill in California history and the third biggest ever in the U.S.
Marc McGinnes, the young lawyer
Waves gently rolled onto a pristine Leadbetter Beach as Marc McGinnes stood there on a recent sunny day. He listened to the soothing, rhythmic purr of the surf and looked at the never-ending Pacific Ocean and distant Channel Islands.
The 77-year-old retired environmental lawyer recalled the sights and stench 50 years ago.
From the beach, he couldn’t see the extent of the spill in the water. But he did witness the horror on the beach: seagulls, pelicans, sandpipers, cormorants and seals covered with oil.
“There were black globs of oil right here on the beach,” Mr. McGinnes said. “It hurt to see the destruction.
“And the pervasive smell — you could smell it from downtown,” he said.
“At the time, it made me mad,” Mr. McGinnes said. “It (the anger) fueled me, and it fueled all of us in a way. That’s what united us more than anything. What the hell! How could we possibly have allowed this to happen?”
Mr. McGinnes, a Murray City, Utah, native, earned a law degree at UC Berkeley in 1966. Afterward, he worked at a prestigious San Francisco firm, but even the money wasn’t enough to satisfy him. He wanted more meaningful work, which came when he got a phone call from U.S. Rep. Pete McCloskey, R-Woodside.
The congressman was among the lawmakers drafting environmental legislation during the oil spill’s aftermath.
“Pete said, ‘We’re passing laws, and one of the reasons I want you to go to Santa Barbara, Marc, is we’re going to need lawyers like you to enforce those laws,’ ” Mr. McGinnes said.
The attorney, inspired by the Apollo 8 photo of the Earth rising above the moon, wanted to help environmental efforts. In June 1969, he moved to Santa Barbara, where his then-wife Kathy Snow had family. He joined two other partners and an associate in a small law firm.
“As a lawyer, as soon as possible, I wanted to establish community (environmental) institutions which would work in a spirit of collaboration and cooperation and, if necessary, sue,” said Mr. McGinnes, who was among the citizens on the January 28 Committee. In 1970, the group evolved into the Community Environmental Council, and Mr. McGinnes became its founding president and Paul Relis, its founding executive director.
Mr. McGinnes explained he wanted less costly solutions for environmental protection than lawsuits and supported rules such as requiring public hearings for oil operations and other projects with an environmental impact. He was glad when President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act on Jan. 1, 1970.
“This finally is what we needed to protect us,” said Mr. McGinnes, who worked with others to mark the first anniversary of the oil spill with the Environmental Rights Day. The Jan. 28, 1970, event included a national conference in Santa Barbara and a Declaration of Environmental Rights.
Later in the 1970s, Mr. McGinnes helped to develop the environmental studies program at UCSB and started the Environmental Defense Center. He remains one of the center’s advisers.
Today, Mr. McGinnes, who’s married to artist Seyburn Zorthian and has two sons and three grandchildren, surfs in the ocean he has fought to protect.
“Citizens everywhere,” he said as he watched the surf roll onto Leadbetter Beach, “have the right to a livable environment.”
— Dave Mason
Paul Relis, the UCSB student
‘Like a big blob of black puree.”
That’s the way Paul Relis, 72, describes seeing the horrific scene below as he flew over the oil “roiling up” from the platform offshore and seeping onto local beaches.
“At first, I was mesmerized. Then, I got angry — how could this happen? Then, I remember thinking distinctly, ‘This is going to change the world,’ ” said Mr. Relis.
And it certainly did for Mr. Relis, who was 21 at the time and a student at UCSB.
“I got my bachelor’s degree in literature and was planning to go to law school. Instead, I helped found the Community Environmental Council, became its executive director for 20 years and recently semiretired from CR&R Incorporated, an environmental services company,” he said.
Mr. Relis is also the author of “Out of the Wasteland: Stories From the Environmental Frontier” (Community Environmental Council, 2016) in which he describes in great detail the 1969 oil spill.
During a phone interview with the News-Press, he told about driving to class from his home at the Trout Club off San Marcos Pass the day the spill happened.
“I was listening to the radio when I heard about a big story developing. I was intrigued, so I drove to Stearns Wharf. There were helicopters flying around, fire trucks, a lot of commotion. I saw the black water. It was appalling. My God, I couldn’t believe it. I grew up in Long Beach, where I was a beach bum. The ocean was kind of sacred to me. I hung around the wharf, and that’s when I met Bud Bottoms, who later helped found GOO! or Get Oil Out!,” recalled Mr. Relis.
“Bud launched my environmental career. He introduced me to local leaders, the mayor and state Sen. Al Weingand. He arranged for me to get in a small plane and fly over the spill for a bird’s-eye view. That black upwelling of oil into our ocean is as vivid and haunting to me today as it was 50 years ago. I went through an instant transformation.”
At first, the community was shocked, and then it got angry.
“The spill transformed and united Santa Barbarans, from Montecito housewives to teachers, doctors, lawyers, waitresses and garbage collectors,” said Mr. Relis. “There was absolute unity in town. This couldn’t be allowed to happen again.”
People asked themselves, “What are we going to do about this?”
Their first response was to blockade Stearns Wharf, where trucks loaded and unloaded supplies for the offshore oil rigs.
“The company finally moved its operations to Ventura,” said Mr. Relis.
He also remembers volunteers attempting to clean up the birds who were soaked in oil and dying by the hundreds.
“It was a horrible sight to see the birds trying to survive. They couldn’t fly, and they couldn’t eat because they couldn’t open their mouths. Nobody knew what to do. Early attempts to clean them were unsuccessful.”
Also noteworthy for him was watching the laborers trying to soak up the oil with bales of hay.
“They had pitchforks and made huge piles of the oil-soaked straw on the beaches. It was a pathetic response to a complex problem that was unprecedented.”
Mr. Relis was so traumatized by the entire experience that he determined to find a career that would focus on finding an alternative to oil dependency.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in literature from UCSB in 1970, he was at the forefront of the fledgling environmental movement. He became the first executive director of the Community Environmental Council, which pioneered recycling, waste minimization, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.
From 1991 to 1998, Mr. Relis served as an executive in the California Environmental Protection Agency as Gov. Pete Wilson’s appointee to the California Integrated Waste Management Board, now CalRecycle.
Since 1999, he has been a senior executive with CR&R Incorporated, an Orange County-based company.
“I was leading the company’s efforts to develop technology to convert the organic fraction of the municipal solid waste stream to renewable natural gas, a zero carbon fuel and soil products for California agriculture. This technology will be the first of its kind in the United States.”
— Marilyn McMahon
Hillary Hauser, the Miramar Beach rat and Ocean Science News correspondent
Hillary Hauser grew up on Miramar Beach, so when she saw her beloved playground covered with oil, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“I was horrified. I was slipping around on the oil-covered rocks like everyone else,” she said. “I remember the men scooping up the oil-soaked straw that was being used to clean the beach. It wasn’t working.”
Although her mother still lived in the family home at the end of Posilipo Lane in Montecito, Ms. Hauser, then 25, wasn’t in town on Jan. 28, 1969, when an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil spewed into the ocean, creating an oil slick 35 miles long along California’s coast and killing thousands of birds, fish and sea mammals.
The blowout was caused by inadequate safety precautions taken by Union Oil. The company received a waiver from the U.S. Geological Survey that allowed it to build a protective casing around the drilling hole that was 61 feet short of the federal minimum requirements at the time.
“The resulting explosion was so powerful it cracked the sea floor in five places, and crude oil spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons an hour for a month before it could be slowed,” said Ms. Hauser, who was writing as a stringer for Ocean Science News, which was based in Washington, D.C.
“I was covering California and living in Los Angeles. When the spill happened, I was on the scene within hours. I thought of all the times I had gone scuba diving in the ocean that was now covered with the black goo,” said Ms. Hauser, 74, who was born in Palo Alto, moved to Montecito with her family in 1954, earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of Washington in Seattle in 1966 and started scuba diving the same year.
“I got certified in 1968 and moved to Los Angeles to become Skin Diver Magazine’s assistant editor. Underwater cameras were beginning to capture detailed pictures of undersea creatures, including tropical fishes, and I began the popular ‘Fish of the Month’ feature, which became ‘The Book of Marine Fishes.’ ” she told the News-Press from her office at Heal the Ocean, where she is the executive editor.
“When I saw how many birds were covered with oil, it was sickening,” said Ms. Hauser, who has published six books about the sea, as well as numerous articles about underwater adventure. As a diving journalist, she became known as the “Diver of the Strange and Bizarre” for her exploration of the sinkholes of South Australia for National Geographic, diving into Devil’s Hole, a flooded earthquake fault in Death Valley and diving the notorious big wave reefs in the world such as Waimea, Jaws, Pipeline and Mavericks.
“Speaking of strange and bizarre things, I remember how they tried to prevent the oil from coming to shore by attaching yellow booms from one boat to another and making a circle to catch the oil. They weren’t very effective,” said Ms. Hauser, who became co-founder and executive director of Heal the Ocean in 1998 in response to the closing of local beaches due to bacteria.
“I wrote an article for the News-Press called ‘Another Day at the Beach?’ which, much like the oil spill, prompted a huge outpouring of emotional support and calls for action from the community. In response, a public demonstration took place at the Santa Barbara County Administration Building in support of clean waters and clean beaches. This community outcry gave rise to Heal the Ocean,” she said.
Then, she added with a laugh, “I only agreed to stay a year as executive director. That was 20 years ago.”
— Marilyn McMahon
John Hankins, the budding journalist
Two quotes remain vivid in John Hankins’ memories of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara.
Both were uttered by Fred Hartley, president of Union Oil, the company responsible for the terrible tragedy.
One referred to his being impressed by the amount of publicity the death of birds generated.
The second was that he didn’t want to call the spill a disaster because there was no loss of human life.
“His lack of empathy enraged the community, and hundreds showed up to shout at him and wave signs of protest when he arrived at the Santa Barbara Airport in his Lear Jet to personally inspect the situation,” recalled Mr. Hankins, 74, from his home in Ventura.
He was among the protesters and wrote a story about it for El Gaucho, which was the name of the UCSB campus newspaper before it became the Daily Nexus.
“I was a staff writer and later became managing editor. I was an older student because I had been in the service. What I saw really opened my eyes — they were using very primitive ways to soak up the oil — strewing straw on the beaches to soak up the oil and then having men pick it up with pitchforks to put in piles to have it hauled away,” said Mr. Hankins, who was 24 at the time.
Because he lived downtown and commuted to the campus, he was well aware of the immensity of the situation, but most of the other students were oblivious, he said.
“They were under the radar. What was pushing the oil spill off the front pages of El Gaucho were stories about the Black Students Union and the arrest of some of its members. Remember, this was a tumultuous time on the campus and in the country in general,” said Mr. Hankins.
“There was a small mention of the oil spill in El Gaucho on Feb. 5, and two days later, oil appeared on the campus beach. On Feb. 7, I wrote a story about a big rally at the airport for Sen. Edmund Muskie from Maine and Jesse Unruh, a Democratic politician and the California state treasurer, who had come to personally inspect what was happening. They were greeted warmly because they were politicians who could do something about this.”
On Feb. 10, the slick began entering the Goleta Slough, and there was a story in El Gaucho with a warning from a zoologist about the severe ramifications of the oil spill.
Students began to sit up and take notice the next day when the campus paper ran a photo of a surfer holding his board and standing next to a blob of black oil on the Goleta beach.
“On Feb. 13, I wrote a front-page article on a new campus organization called COPE, which stood for Campus Organization for a Pure Environment. It was organized by Dr. Norm Sanders, an assistant professor of geography. The next semester, the first course on environmental pollution was offered. Now, there is the Bren School, which is totally focused on the environment,” said Mr. Hankins, who has clear recollection of the events that happened 50 years ago because he has all his stories in bound volumes that he keeps close at hand.
After graduating from UCSB, he continued his journalism career as owner of the Santa Barbara County News Service and Santa Barbara County News Clipping Service for 25 years.
Now, he is runs the Sierra Club newsletter, Condor Call.
“Every year about his time, I include the quotes from Fred Hartley,” said Mr. Hankins.
— Marilyn McMahon
Hal Conklin, the visiting UC Berkeley student
Hal Conklin stood on Stearns Wharf and recalled the sight of hundreds of birds covered with oil on East Beach.
“My initial reaction was not anger. Mine was more sadness,” Mr. Conklin said. “Look at what we were doing to these animals! … Birds were dying on the beaches.”
At the time, the Oakland native was a 22-year-old student at UC Berkeley, and he came to Santa Barbara, where he had a cousin, a few days after the oil spill.
“I was still in school, so I had to go back to the Bay Area. When I came back, that’s when I realized how big the spill was,” he said. “This was something massive that was affecting the town.”
“It became clear within the year that this was a turning point (for the environment),” said Mr. Conklin, who recalled Santa Barbara beaches being closed two years during the cleanup. “President Nixon walked the beach here and signed the law creating the Environmental Protection Agency. Within 24 months, California passed the Coastal Act, and the state Lands Commission started to shut down oil platforms within three miles of the coast.”
Mr. Conklin, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social psychology in 1972, had planned to work with poor children in Oakland but thought about Santa Barbara and how the environment affects children around the world. So after college, he moved to Santa Barbara, where he served as co-director of the Community Environmental Council for its first 10 years.
“Everyone was fighting the law and fighting the oil companies, fighting all kinds of things, but our goal was to create a positive alternative that built a coalition around the future,” Mr. Conklin said. “Let’s build community gardens and teach people how to grow things. Let’s create a renewable energy project.”
Mr. Conklin was part of early efforts toward a recycling program, and he worked to redefine Stearns Wharf. The pier had been used as a launching point for oil companies with offshore platforms, but after the oil spill, the 1872 wharf’s future was uncertain.
Mr. Conklin campaigned for making the pier a tourist site when he ran in 1977 for the Santa Barbara City Council, and two years later he had the council votes to make that a reality.
In 1981, Stearns Wharf reopened as a destination point where tourists could see the Pacific Ocean and enjoy dining and shopping. Mr. Conklin said a 1983 Coastal Commission study showed the wharf was making more money than San Francisco’s famous Pier 39.
During his 17 years on the City Council, which included a 1993-94 term as mayor, Mr. Conklin worked on managing and limiting population growth, planning the waterfront and preserving farmland in the Goleta Valley.
Mr. Conklin, a retired Southern California Edison public affairs director who has five sons, two daughters and 11 grandchildren with his wife, Haley, credits the oil spill for changing his life.
“I would never had thought about doing any of those (environmental) things if not for the day I walked down here and saw that,” he said as he looked at East Beach today, remembering the oil-soaked birds.
— Dave Mason