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The Santa Barbara oil spill that changed history

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California Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency over a coastal oil spill, which dumped as much as 20,000 gallons into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara on Tuesday. This is not the first spill in Santa Barbara.

Santa Barbara was the site of the world’s first offshore oil drilling back in 1896. In 1969, it was also the site of our nation’s biggest oil spill, up to that point, when some three million gallons spewed from an offshore rig.

“I think it was seared in the memories of all of us who grew up here in southern California, and I think it was seared in the consciousness of most Americans,” says Zed Yaroslavsky, a former Los Angeles County supervisor.

Given the value of the Channel Islands and the Santa Barbara coast as an environmental and economic resource, drilling for oil there didn’t make sense in 1969, he says, and it doesn’t today.

“You can get oil in a lot of places. You cannot get more beaches, you cannot get more marine life.”

The 1969 spill, along with the burning of the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, seeded the modern environmental movement, and the creation of groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council a year later in 1970.

Joel Reynolds is the Western Director of the NRDC.

“It led to the drafting and enactment of a whole series of federal environmental laws that today we take for granted,” Reynolds says. “Things like the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, The Coastal Zone Management Act and on and on and on.”

Reynolds says it’s unfortunate that lessons of the first spill still haven’t been learned.

“My reaction, my immediate reaction was—not again!”

This week’s spill is much smaller than the one in 1969, which itself was smaller than the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico five years ago.

But more drilling is on the way. This year the Obama administration announced plans to issue new oil and gas leases along the southeast Atlantic coast, starting in 2017.

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