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BP Spill: Ripples

Reporter’s Notebook: Lessons from the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Sarah Gardner Jun 25, 2010

By Sarah Gardner

Deja vu, all over again. That was 82-year-old James “Bud” Bottoms’ immediate response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. He’s lived in Santa Barbara for decades and remembers the Santa Barbara spill back in 1969 vividly. So are the two spills similar? Well, yes and no.

The Santa Barbara accident helps put the BP spill in context. The spills have all sorts of parallels, like federal regulators asleep at the wheel, oil company CEO’s with foot-in-mouth disease, old-fashioned containment booms and presidents gravely surveying clean-up efforts and vowing change. But after Bottoms showed me his personal collection of photos and memorabilia from those days, I realized how much distance there is between Santa Barbara in 1969 and the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2010.

In ’69, Santa Barbara was filled with artists, university students, surfers, and tourists. There was old money too. Even before the spill, some residents grumbled about the offshore platforms ruining their views of the sparkling Pacific. Bottoms says townspeople went into shock when gobs of oil started coating their once-pristine beaches. Then they got mad.

They demanded a ban on offshore drilling. They held protests, signed petitions. Mailed vials of oil to lawmakers. They formed new environmental groups like GOO, or Get Oil Out. They rallied supporters by staging plays and singing protest songs. Here are the lyrics to one of them, written before President Richard Nixon flew in to survey the damage:

Oh, why won’t Dick
Inspect our slick
When we are part of his own home sweet home
Oh, why won’t Dick
Inspect our slick
And see what’s happened to our lovely foam?
I wish that Dick
Could see our slick
But he would rather spend his time in Rome.
Oh, why won’t Dick
Inspect our slick?
Perhaps he fears another Teapot Dome!

Alright, so they weren’t great poets. At the time, the offshore oil industry was relatively small and most Santa Barbara residents weren’t employed by it. They weren’t invested in its future the way so many people living on the Gulf Coast are today. Check out my colleague Adriene Hill’s story from southern Louisiana. You’ll get the picture.

The times were different too. Bottoms says for many Americans, the Santa Barbara spill was an awakening. He remembers professors from UC-Santa Barbara educating locals on the concept of “ecology.” Many had never witnessed an industrial accident that had polluted the environment so violently. Just six months later the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire, fanning the flames of the blossoming environmental movement even more. In the years following the Santa Barbara spill Americans got Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act. Nixon concluded that the spill had “touched the conscience of the American people.”

All this isn’t to say that Gulf Coast residents aren’t angry about the BP spill or upset over the damage to their beaches, marshes and wetlands. Many have filed damage claims against BP and complain of delays and red tape. And like the Santa Barbara spill, the BP catastrophe will no doubt produce tighter regulations of the offshore industry. But even if the disaster in the Gulf drags on for many more months, don’t expect folks in southern Louisiana to start chanting “Get Oil Out!” the slogan Bud Bottoms and his fellow activists in Santa Barbara made popular 41 years ago.

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