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Judith Dale: Earth Day's Santa Barbara origin
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Judith Dale: Earth Day's Santa Barbara origin

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The 51st anniversary of Earth Day is approaching on April 22. Many people may not realize that the idea was launched in Santa Barbara in response to the 1969 oil spill. 

Today, Earth Day is the largest worldwide, secular celebration with 75,000 global partners reaching out to hundreds of millions of people in 192 countries.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, the U.S. was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through large, powerful, and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of consequence from either law or bad press.

Air pollution was commonly accepted as the cost of prosperity. A factory could spew black clouds of toxic smoke into the air or dump tons of toxic waste into a nearby stream, and that was perfectly legal. Companies could not take them to court to stop it. Until this point, mainstream America remained oblivious to environmental impacts and how a polluted environment threatens human health.

Two events helped change this.

The first event was the publication of Rachel Carson’s bestseller "Silent Spring" in 1962 that outlined the dangerous effects of pesticides and raised public awareness and concern for living organisms, the environment, and the links between pollution and public health. The book represented a "watershed moment," selling more than 500,000 copies in 24 countries.

The second event was the devastation caused by the 1969 Santa Barbara Channel oil spill. The city has a long history of oil development due to oil found in the thick sedimentary rock layers beneath the Santa Barbara Channel. The area has been an attractive resource for the petroleum industry for more than a 100 years.

The southern coast of Santa Barbara County was the world's first offshore oil drilling location, which took place from piers at the Summerland Oil Field in 1896, just six miles from the spill site. An economic boom accompanied the development of the Summerland field, which transformed the spiritualist community of Summerland into an oil town in just a few years.

Oil development in the Channel and coastline was controversial even from the earliest days. By the late 19th century, Santa Barbara began to establish itself as a health resort and tourist destination with dramatic natural scenery, unspoiled beaches, and a perfect climate.

In the late 1890s, when the Summerland field began to expand much closer to the city, a crowd of midnight vigilantes, headed by local newspaper publisher Reginald Fernald, tore down one of the unsightly rigs erected on Miramar Beach itself (now the location of a luxury hotel). In 1927, the discovery of oil west of Santa Barbara led to the Ellwood Oil Field development. This caused the city to be bracketed on the east and west with oil fields. In 1929, the Mesa Oil Field was discovered within the city itself, on the blufftop adjacent to present-day Santa Barbara City College. Oil derricks were built on the hilltop within easy view of the harbor, on narrow town lots intended originally for houses.

While local protests were vocal, they failed to shut down the oil development, as there was a city ordinance specifically allowing drilling on the Mesa. The oil derricks only went away when production on the small Mesa field abruptly declined and ended in the late 1930s.

041321 Santa Barbara Earth Day 2

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1969, an offshore oil platform in Santa Barbara sprung a leak and covered the beach and wildlife in oil.

Seismic testing under the Channel began after World War II, to locate oil reservoirs deep underneath the ocean floor. The tests showed there were large petroleum reservoirs in the Channel. The ocean-drilling technology had developed enough to allow oil platforms out in the ocean. The state granted leases beginning in 1957 for platforms to be built three or more miles offshore.

The first rig in federal waters, Platform Hogan, became operational in 1967. In February 1968, 72 leases went up for bid. A partnership between Union Oil, Gulf Oil, Texaco, and Mobil bought a lease in the Dos Cuadras Offshore Oil Field. Their first rig on the lease, Platform A, started drilling on Sept. 14, 1968.

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1969, workers drilling a well from Platform A reached its final depth of 3,479 feet. Of this depth, only 239 feet had been fitted with a steel conductor casing; the remainder was to be equipped with one once the drill bit was out. When the drill bit was pulled out, a massive spout of oil, gas, and drilling mud burst into the air. The pressure was so great it took 13 minutes to cap it.

However, plugging the well at the top had failed to stop the blowout, which was tearing through the ocean floor in several places. The blowout opened undersea faults, and oil and gas spewed out of the rupture at a rate of 1,000 gallons-an-hour for a month before it could be slowed. Seepage continued for the rest of 1969.

People have celebrated the beginning of spring for thousands of years. No matter the time and place, peoples’ traditions and customs symbolized rebirth, fertility, a new beginning, and new hope. 

NOAA estimated that 4.2 million gallons of crude oil polluted the ocean and the shorelines of the Channel Islands and 35 miles of the California coastline. Sea birds died by the thousands. The onslaught suffocated dolphins and seals. Thirty miles of sandy beaches were covered with thick sludge. Hundreds of miles of ocean were covered with a black oil sheen. It was the worst oil spill in history — until 20 years later when the Exxon Valdez dumped 11 million gallons of crude off Alaska's coast.

(NOTE: To date, the worst spill is the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in April 2010 that discharged 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico that washed up onto the gulf beaches of Louisiana and Florida.)

The environmental movement begins

During the Santa Barbara Channel oil spill for the first time, the American public and politicians were shocked. They noticed what was happening to the environment. Night after night, the evening news showed pictures of the dead, oil-covered birds; oil-drenched birds fighting for life; sea otters covered in oil that could not swim; tides that brought in the corpses of dead seals and dolphins. This TV coverage, in addition to all of the print media that covered the disaster, made people aware of the environment and the price being paid for not taking care of it.

The spill became a flashpoint for the founding of the environmental movement.

President Nixon visited Santa Barbara to view the damage. In 1970, he established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The 1960s anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements on college campuses evolved into the environmental movement of the 1970s. On the first anniversary of the oil blowout, Jan. 28, 1970, Environmental Rights Day was created. The Declaration of Environmental Rights was read, written by Rod Nash, a professor at UCSB. Politicians and environmental activists were in attendance and planted the seeds for the concept of Earth Day, a national and international event to focus attention on the environment.

On the heels of the media coverage of the oil spill, the success of Environmental Rights Day, and corporate funding from organized labor, the first Earth Day brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform. It has grown every year since.

Earth Day’s success helped spur long overdue action in Washington on behalf of the environment. Thanks to peoples’ environmental awareness and activism, the 1970s was a period of important environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Superfund, Toxics Substances Control Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The 1970s had seen the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the banning of DDT and lead in gasoline.

Under the leadership of Rod Nash, Garrett Harden, and Marc McGinnes, UCSB developed the first undergraduate Environmental Studies Program in the Fall of 1970. Many other colleges and universities soon followed, and today there are hundreds of college environmental programs – both graduate and undergraduate.

The environment today

We have come a long way but still have a way to go. This month's National Geographic Magazine (April 2021) features "The Fight for Clean Air." The cover states that worldwide air pollution causes 7 million premature deaths each year. The article gives the statistic that in the USA, electric vehicles could save thousands of lives and $72 billion in health-care costs each year. It also states that “In China, improved air quality in early 2020 may have saved more lives than the coronavirus took."

We are fortunate to live in California with strict laws to protect our air, water, ocean, forests, etc. However, we got a taste of what some other countries faced last September during the vast forest fires that brought smoke and ash to our Valley. People in some of the world’s most populous countries — China, India, Pakistan — breathe the most polluted air. These countries are where we were pre-1970s.

As April 22, 2021, Earth Day approaches, think about what you can do to promote a clean environment and protect the plants and animals that make our Valley the beautiful place it is. 

23 stories explaining the Central Coast's history, landscape, and traditions from Judith Dale

Judith Dale has written several columns highlighting the culture, geography and history of the Central Coast. Get better acquainted with our beautiful slice of California with this collection of her work. 

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We have the perfect setting for fires: thousands of acres of wilderness with rugged terrain and few roads; rainy winter weather that allows grass and brush to grow, followed by months of hot, dry weather; prevailing winds as well as sundowner winds; and people, who are the cause of most fires.

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At one time, Hollister and his partners, the Dibblee Brothers, owned all the land between Refugio Beach and Point Conception. They owned all the land grants around Point Concepcion, the Ortega family’s Refugio Grant, the La Purisima Mission lands and the San Julian Ranch.

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We often overlook and take for granted the importance of the river to our past development and more importantly to our future development and quality of life.

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Judith Dale looks back to 1920, offering a timeline of progress the U.S. has made over the last 100 years. In most areas such as life expectancy, industry, technology, and position in the world, the U.S. has come a long way. However, many of the social/cultural challenges the country faced in the 1920s, are still with us today.

Former mayor of Buellton, Judith Dale built her career in education and continues to serve the local community as Santa Barbara County 3rd District representative to the Library Advisory Board and board member of the Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospital Foundation. She can be reached at


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