50 Years Ago This Santa Barbara Oil Spill Helped Awaken the Nation to Environmental Policy

At the time, it was the largest oil disaster in U.S. waters.

On January 28, 1969, an oil well six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara ruptured and sent gallons of crude into the Pacific Ocean and onto California beaches. The images of blackened beaches and oil soaked wildlife made mainstream news and even brought then President Richard Nixon to tour the damage via helicopter.

According to KUOW, “The oil killed thousands of birds and an unknown number of sea mammals. Hundreds of oiled birds that were still alive were taken to the Santa Barbara Zoo, which is just a few steps from the beach.

“’At the time there was really no place or process to care for the oiled wildlife that was showing up on the beaches,’ says Nancy McToldridge, the zoo’s director. ‘So the zoo closed its doors and concentrated its time and energy into taking in these oiled birds, treating them and then rehabbing them back out into the wild.’”

The event prompted such a public outcry that it would forever transform environmental policy and activism. The following year in April, the first Earth Day took place, and by December, the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

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