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The Gulf catastrophe brings back memories of Santa Barbara

by Bryan Zepp Jamieson
May 1, 2010

In late January 1969, I was living in Goleta, California, just west of Santa Barbara and a few miles north of Summerland.

I got home from school to learn that there had been an oil spill in the Channel. It didn't seem that big a deal. The oil rig was six miles off shore, and the images on our cheesy 1966 model color TV just didn't look very threatening. In fact, I had to take their word for it that were was even an oil slick there; I couldn't see one on the set. When I called my girlfriend, we didn't talk about the oil spill. I was sixteen and only had one overriding interest – girls. She was 15, and learning how to keep my hopes up without actually having to deliver anything. So we didn't talk about oil spills.

The next morning at school, there was some talk about it in the morning. I remember one girl, who called herself Rainbow, and who was a rather mousy and tiresome sort who would go on so much about Vietnam that even those of us who agreed with her started avoiding her. This morning, she was railing about an ecological catastrophe, and how this would destroy the southern California coastline forever.

We knew what a catastrophe was, since we had all lived through 1963 and 1968. We weren't quite sure what an “ecological” might be, or what it had to do with some smelly old beaches where if you walked more than a hundred feet, you got tar all over your feet.

One of the auto shop guys even said the oil spill was a good thing, that it would break up some of the naturally occurring tar, just like in auto shop you got grease off your hands by washing them in gasoline. Leaded gasoline, which may have explained his reasoning.

By afternoon, it was becoming clear that something really horrible was happening at the beaches. A rumor was going around that they had all been painted black by the oil, and that millions of birds were dying. Late in the afternoon, our teacher announced extra credit for anyone who went down to the beaches and helped clean up the spill. I signed up.

I imagined that we would spend a few hours walking along with little scoops and buckets, putting in some light work.

From the road, things didn't look that bad. East Beach wasn't black, and the water, beyond it, looked normal. The only thing out of the ordinary was the large number of people in the tidal zone, all doing things with tools like rakes and shovels.

We walked down to where the activity was, and I saw for the first time just how bad it was. The entire zone from high tide to low tide was jet black, covered in inches of sticky, smelly black goo. There were long ropy strands of the stuff that I later realized was kelp, covered completely in crude oil.

A city worker handed me a big rake, and told me to start raking drifts of black straw that had been laid out on the beach into piles for the trucks.

It was hard work. People think of straw as being light – not when it's completely soaked in semi-liquid tar. And the stuff was everywhere; I knew that when I got home, my mom was going to read me the riot act because I had completely ruined my school clothes.

At one point, a big pool of oil rode in right where we were. The gunk was a couple of inches deep, and for the first time, you could really see there was something terribly wrong with the sea water. Mostly the oil was about one part in a million to salt water, and you really couldn't see it in the waves.

But then the waves stopped being waves. Instead of rearing up and breaking like they had for some three billion years, these waves, crushed by oil, simply slithered in, flat, and when the water receded, it did so in rivulets, between a new delta of black slime that it had just left.

At one point, my rake hit something solid, and I pulled the straw from around it. It was a dead sea lion pup, completely coated in oil.

We kids got sent home at dark about three hours later. The City was pretty much running the show at that point, and they were worried about safety and liability issues. But hundreds of adults stayed, and it was clear that they would stay through the night working, if that's what it took.

That's what it took. I left, wondering if Rainbow wasn't right and the beaches hadn't been destroyed for ever.

When I called my girlfriend, she was in tears. A student at a different school, she had volunteered to go down about noon, and got sent to the Zoo to assist in cleaning birds. Mostly she just ran back and fourth, bringing detergent and clean water and towels to the adults who were doing the actual bird handling. Most of the birds were failing to express their gratitude for being unable to fly, smelling horrible, feeling sick, and then grabbed by humans and doused in yet more chemicals. Some of the larger and livelier ones were very hazardous in how they expressed their dissatisfaction with the whole thing.

But most of the birds simply died quietly as my girlfriend, who cried at “Bambi,” watched. I didn't tell her about the sea lion pup. Until then, I had never been close to a sea lion. It wasn't the way I wanted it to happen.

I didn't go back to the beaches for almost two weeks. My parents grounded me, and truth be told, I didn't put up much of a fight. I had left that cold January night feeling profoundly discouraged, and convinced that there was nothing anyone could do. I was wrong. But I was also 16, and filled with teenage angst. I eventually forgave myself. I think my mom was worried about more than my clothes being soiled by the experience.

Two weeks later, the beaches were still a mess, but a quiet mess. The birds were gone. So were most of the volunteers, replaced by workers in heavy equipment who were hauling off the last of the oil-drenched sand.

By then, there was an organization wildfiring in growth around town called “Get Oil Out”. We didn't know it at the time, but it was the start of the environmental movement and lead to Earth Day, and the Clean Air / Clean Water Acts, and deeply influenced California's drive toward clean and efficient cars. In 1969, the air in Los Angeles was far worse than it is today, with less than a third as many cars. Next time you see the San Gabriel Mountains, stop to think of the price the Santa Barbara beaches paid in making that possible.

And yes, the beaches of Santa Barbara did eventually recover, but nobody who was there will ever forget the suffering and cruelty of the oil spill, or how evil and alien it seemed, a pitch black monster intent on destroying anything beautiful.

One of the most stunning things in the 2008 campaign for me was when the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors signed on to the “Drill, baby drill!” hysteria that was being pushed by the corporate whores of the GOP. What where they thinking?

Of course, half of them were in diapers in 1969, and the other half are in diapers now. Nobody ever gets elected to a board of supes for their brains and good judgment. Usually they're Chamber of Commerce types out to feather their nests.

So I'm watching the Deepwater Horizon blowout with a sense of dread. It's far bigger than the Exxon blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel, and will certainly be worse than the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound.

If Exxon was negligent in those two famed oil spills, British Petroleum's role appears to be flat-out criminal. They spent millions successfully lobbying against fail-safes of the sort that they are required to have in the waters off Europe and even Asia, and there are increasing reports that BP cut corners, lied on their EIS statements, and deliberately ignored federal rules in order to save a few bucks.

Worse, they lied about the blow out itself, claiming to have staunched it on the first day (and the Coast Guard believed them and repeated the lie, which delayed emergency response by a good 24 hours) and then underestimated the rate of spillage by at least 80% for the following two weeks.

This morning, as the first ferns in Louisiana are covered in oil and die by the dawn's early light, it's becoming apparent that the spill is hundreds of times the size of the Santa Barbara spill, and stands to destroy, not dozens of miles of beaches, but up to a thousand miles of varied and wonderful shoreline.

The Gulf shoreline is the closest thing to a tropical rain forest that the Continental states have, with an incredibly varied and diverse complex eco-system. The islands off Texas are home to some of the greatest migratory bird rookeries in the world. The bayous and lagoons all stand to die. And nearly all of Florida's shoreline is at risk, an event that will shatter the state's already fragile economy.

All so BP could add a little bit to their billions in profits. It's a pity we can't make the executive officers of BP clean up a little bit of that oil by drinking it.

All we can do is wait, and hope for a shift in the winds, or something that might alleviate the destruction that is to come.

If there is one good thing to come out of it so far (and remember the good that came out of the Santa Barbara oil spill!), it's that we won't have to listen to idiots chanting “Drill, baby, drill!” for quite some time now.

Posted: May 7, 2010

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