Thursday, September 11, 2008

Black Tide

Five-and-a-half miles offshore, Union Oil Company’s Platform A is hemorrhaging oil, a thousand gallons of crude an hour. Mixed with natural gas, it boils out of the platform like a cauldron, green and brown and bubbly.
But it’s black as tar when it hits Carpinteria State Beach, Summerland Beach, Biltmore Beach, and Miramar Beach. And it’s thick as tar when it hits East Beach, West Beach, Hendry’s Beach and Goleta Beach.

I wander the shore, pulling birds, most dead, some alive, out of the muck. The oil sticks to my sneakers, spatters on my shirt and pants. But it isn’t so much the feel of the oil as it is the sight and smell of it. Especially the smell, the smell of hell, fumes that catch in my throat, that make me cough and choke and heave, dry heave because I’ve eaten nothing, can’t eat anything, not with birds dying screaming in my arms, not with the black tide bringing ever more corpses to a shore that is itself dying. I gasp for air, every now and then walking away from the shore to catch my breath, then, returning to the bedarkened beach and the tormented birds, feeling the pain of a world gone black, the agony of creatures screaming in their death throes. This is the look of Hell before the Devil lit a match.

– John McKinney, A Walk Along Land’s End.

The author of the work above ditched his high school classes in Los Angeles to help with the relief effort. Instantly, he was transformed from a dreamy Thoreau-reading, Emerson-admiring nature-lover to a hands-on environmentalist radicalized and changed forever by soul-searing experiences on the shores of Santa Barbara during the 1969 oil spill. (Full disclosure: years after this cataclysmic event, I married this enviro-writer.)
Far too many have forgotten—or don’t even know—what happened on our local shores during those eleven dark days when human error caused the flow of three million gallons of crude oil into local waters. It formed an 800-square-mile oil slick; it devastated 35 miles of local coastline; annihilated an uncountable number of birds, marine mammals, land and sea creatures; and turned the waterfront into a dead zone — ending recreation and local tourism for months.
But they dismiss the disaster, placing their faith in technology, saying it won’t — can’t — happen again. Never mind conservation efforts, investing in alternative energy, or scientific evidence; they determinedly focus on the finite resource of fossil fuels. They add their voices to the short-sighted chorus, demanding ever-more-loudly, “Drill, drill, drill.”
Damn the environment, they say, drill to the last drop.
Even in Santa Barbara, where the oil spill focused the attention of the world, prompting then-President Richard Nixon to note: “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people. What is involved is the use of our resources of the sea and of the land in a more effective way and with more concern for preserving the beauty and the natural resources that are so important to any kind of society that we want for the future. The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”
And on Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council touched that conscience once more.
With the passage of its resolution supporting the State and Federal moratoria on new exploration in the Santa Barbara Channel, the Council cleared up any confusion: The birthplace of the environmental movement has not changed — or lost — its mind. The place where Earth Day began has not abandoned its long-held commitment to responsible stewardship of land and sea in favor of environment for the quick-fix promises of Big Oil.
Council’s action was in direct response to the recent action of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors who voted 3-2 to urge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to “allow expanded oil exploration and extraction” off our local coast, a move even the Republican governor opposes.
Politically driven during the heat of a presidential campaign, that misrepresentative vote created headlines across the nation, sending the message that even in Santa Barbara, oil is valued more highly than any other natural resource.
That message was wrong.
Placed on the Council agenda at the request of Mayor Marty Blum and Council Members Das Williams and Helene Schneider, the resolution once again reaffirmed the City’s hard-learned lessons and historic position that has never wavered, whatever the political leanings of the council.
As editor Thomas Storke observed long ago, “This oil pollution has done something I have never seen before in Santa Barbara — it has united citizens of all political persuasions in a truly nonpartisan cause.”
A listing of the City’s long history of resolutions, recommendations and letters on the subject fills six pages, single-spaced. Our current City Council has admirably, appropriately, added another few lines.

Cheri Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. E-mail her your questions or comments to

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