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Did the Santa Barbara oil spill save our beaches?

On 28 January 1969, a blowout on a Union Oil platform six miles off the Santa Barbara coast released three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean. As the first environmental disaster captured in technicolor and publicized across national news media, the Santa Barbara oil spill played an important role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement. According to an oft-cited anecdote, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson was flying home from California after having toured the oil-scarred beaches when he came up with the idea for a nationwide environmental teach-in. On 22 April 1970, his idea became reality when twenty million Americans attended Earth Day events, making it the second-largest protest in US history after the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The disaster also provided a major impetus for the creation of the California Coastal Commission, the state agency in charge of reviewing permits for construction projects along the California shoreline and ensuring public access to the coast.

The oil spill was a momentous event in the history of environmentalism. But was it enough to save our beaches? Today, Southern California beaches are threatened by problems common to many other shores around the world: sea level rise, erosion, privatization, plastic and sewage pollution, and the legacy of toxic waste ocean dumping.

The aftermath of the oil spill carried two important lessons. The first is that no one is isolated from environmental problems, not even the rich and famous. In 1969, the oil spill came as a shock because places like Santa Barbara, home to many celebrities and elites, had been largely protected from the consequences of a fossil fuel-based economy. When the slick reached the shore, two worlds that were deeply entangled, but had always been deliberately separated, collided: the oil industry and the ultimate postwar dream of a California beach.

Today, many Malibu beach homeowners fight to keep the public off their sands. But they’re also battling climate change. By 2050, all but the largest Malibu beaches are expected to be below annual flood level due to sea-level rise. Such projections have yet to deter some homeowners from trying to save their small patch of paradise. In 2010, Broad Beach homeowners started an unprecedented, privately funded battle against rising seas. They’ve built an emergency seawall, which only makes erosion worse in the long-term, and trucked in offshore sand. But all the sand in the world and the highest seawalls will not solve a problem that can only be addressed collectively. If we want to keep our beaches, we need to stop releasing carbon into the atmosphere and leave them to do what beaches do, which is to wax and wane naturally as they’ve always done.

The second lesson from the spill is that cleaning beaches is pointless if we keep on trashing them. Fifty-five years later, oil spills have become a cost of doing business in a fossil fuel economy. The latest major spill, which affected Huntington Beach in 2021, was caused by a container ship’s anchor rupturing a seabed oil pipeline. Ships also regularly dump “bilge water,” engine wastewater full of oil and other toxic substances, into the ocean instead of treating it. In addition, sewage spills when storm drains overflow after big downpours continue to plague Los Angeles, despite the crusading work of Heal the Bay since the 1980s. More worrisome are the findings of recent seafloor explorations that chemical companies dumped DDT through the sewers and routinely unloaded leaking barrels of DDT off barges through the 1970s.

Finally, plastic pollution plagues California shorelines. In season 2 of And Just Like That…, the reboot of Sex and the City, the character Miranda Hobbes was filmed cleaning up a Malibu beach, just like California’s many dedicated, real-life volunteers. But even if Carrie Bradshaw and all her fans came out, there wouldn’t be enough hands to pick up the 1.5 Mt of microplastic that enter the ocean annually. Later this year, the United Nations is set to finalize and sign on a new global treaty to end plastic pollution. Stopping (or at least curbing) the production of plastics at the source—rather than once it has reached our shores—is the only way to truly address the problem. But the chemical and plastic lobbies are working hard behind the scenes to prevent the treaty from imposing a cap on production. Protecting beaches will also mean keeping an eye on these negotiations.    

Beaches are places of joy, wonder, and play. It’s incumbent upon us to make sure they don’t just melt away.

Feature image by Gustavo Zambelli on Unsplash

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