Photos from the Vault

Massive Santa Barbara oil spill still impacts U.S. 50 years later

Workers clean a beach after the Union Oil disaster near Santa Barbara on Feb. 15, 1969. A casing break fractured the sea floor and the oil spill went on for months in the Santa Barbara Channel.
Workers clean a beach after the Union Oil disaster near Santa Barbara on Feb. 15, 1969. A casing break fractured the sea floor and the oil spill went on for months in the Santa Barbara Channel. Telegram-Tribune

Editor’s note: Friday marks the 50th anniversary of the Union Oil spill in Santa Barbara, which began with a blowout on an offshore drilling platform on Jan. 28, 1969. This Photos from the Vault column by Tribune photographer David Middlecamp was originally published on July 20, 2008.

Offshore oil drilling has been touted recently as the solution to high oil prices. Some political statements sound a lot like an old Exxon commercial. The United States currently consumes more than 25 percent of the world’s oil output.

The Central Coast has strong reasons to have a love-hate relationship with oil.

In the early 1900s, the oil industry brought the area some of the first well-paying non-farm jobs. No one ploughs with a mule anymore or reads by whale-oil lamps.

In the 1960s, cartoon tigers made our cars run better and uniformed attendants wiped down our windows.

Somewhere along the way the perception of oil companies soured.

One could argue the galvanizing moment was the Santa Barbara oil disaster of 1969.

Six miles off of Summerland, 3,500 feet below the ocean floor, natural gas pressure was pushing under platform A.

Union Oil, author of the biggest spills in San Luis Obispo County (Avila Beach, Guadalupe Dunes), was the owner of the drilling platform.

Investigation revealed Union Oil had been cutting corners. The oil giant got permission from the U. S. Geological Survey to use casing pipe thinner than federal and state standards. The more strict state standards only applied inside the three-mile coastal zone.

When drilling mud fell below the safety margin, the pipe ruptured and broke an east-west fault in five places, releasing crude oil and gas for 11 days. Later fault breaks would continue the spill.

Sea birds, elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins and beaches were coated in black goo.

Quoting Telegram-Tribune staff writer Gilbert Moore in an article from February 15, 1969:

“It churned and bubbled to the surface through a sea floor fissure for 11 days, turning the channel into a vast oil slick.

“It coated miles of peerless beach with sludgy slime.

“It captured loons, sea scooters, grebes — hundreds of them — in a cocoon of death.”

In addition to the environmental damage, it was a public relations disaster for Union Oil (now Unocal).

Driving distance from a media capital of the United States, Los Angeles television crews and photographers transmitted images across the world of dying birds and volunteers throwing straw on the beach to mop up the oil.

Fred L. Hartley, president of Union Oil offered this reaction: “I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds.”

The disaster united ecological organizations and brought many into the political mainstream.

Earth Day would be founded in the wake of the event.

The Environmental Protection Agency was created Dec. 2, 1970. I somehow doubt Union Oil sent them a cake.

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