The People

of Santa Barbara





(A Cautionary Tale)

or, Who Has Power and Who Does Not in America


This 1969 history promises to teach 2010 much, and we do well to listen. A sociological thriller, a nail-biter, a roller coaster ride for the ethically conscious, with everything from the bitterly funny to the obscenely familiar. As a bonus, one is left with a more thorough and effective understanding when one is done; so such Evils may at long last belong to history alone.....


One of the extraordinary attributes
of the Santa Barbara locale is the presence of a
technology establishment among the most sophis-
ticated in the country. Several officials of the
General Research Corporation (a local R & D
firm with experience in marine technology) initiat-
ed studies of the oil outflow and announced find-
ings of pollution volume at a "minimum" of ten
fold the Interior estimate.... Interior both refused
to alter its estimate or to reveal its method for
making estimates. Throughout the crisis, the
divergence of the estimates remained at about
ten fold.... The lowest estimate of all was
provided by an official of the Western Oil
and Gas Association, in a letter to
the Wall Street Journal. His estimate: "Probably
less than 100 gallons a day" (SBNP, August 5,


The oil companies, through various public
relations officials, constantly minimized
the actual amount of damage and maximized
the effect of Union Oil's cleanup activity.
What surprised (and most irritated) the locals was
the fact that Interior statements implied the
same goal. Thus Hickel referred at a press con-
ference to the "recent" oil spill, providing the
impression that the oil spill was over, at a time
when freshly erupting oil was continuing to stain
local beaches. President Nixon appeared locally
to "inspect" the damage to beaches, and Interior
arranged for him to land his helicopter on a city
beach which had been cleaned thoroughly in the
days just before, but spared hitn a close-up of
much of the rest of the County shoreline which
continued to be covered with a thick coat of
crude oil. (The beach visited by Nixon has been
oil stained on many occasions subsequent to the
President's departure.) Secret servicemen kept
the placards and shouts of several hundred
demonstrators safely out of Presidential viewing
or hearing distance.


Oil on feathers is ingested by birds,
continuous preening thus leads to death.
In what local and national authorities called a
hopeless task, two bird-cleaning centers were
established to cleanse feathers and otherwise
administer to damaged wild-fowl. (Oil money helped
to establish and supply these centers.)
Both spokesmen from Oil and the federal govern-
ment then adopted these centers as sources of
"data" on the extent of damage to wild-fowl.
Thus, the number of dead birds due to pollution
was computed on the basis of number of fatalities
at the wild-fowl centers.* This of course is pre-
posterous given the fact that dying birds are pro-
vided with very inefficient means of propelling
themselves to such designated places. The ob-
viousness of this dramatic understatement of
fatalities was never acknowledged by either Oil
or Interior—although noted in Santa Barbara.


Several observers at the Channel Islands
(a national wildlife preserve containing one of the
country's largest colonies of sea animals) reported
sighting unusually large numbers of dead sea-
lion pups—on the oil stained shores of one of
the islands. Statement and counter-statement
followed with Oil's defenders arguing that the
animals were not dead at all—but only appeared
inert because they were sleeping.


In correspondence with complaining
citizens, N. B. Livermore, Jr., of the Resources
Agency of California refers to the continuing oil
spill as "minor seepage" with "no major long-
term effect on the marine ecology."


From the start, part of the shock of the oil spill
was that such a thing could happen in a country
with such sophisticated technology. The much
overworked phrase, "If we can send a man to the
moon . . ." was even more overworked in Santa
Barbara. When, in years previous, Santa Bar-
bara's elected officials had attempted to halt
the original sale of leases, "assurances" were
given from Interior that such an "accident" could
not occur, given the highly developed state of
the art. Not only did it occur, but the original
gusher of oil spewed forth completely out of
control for ten days and the continuing "seepage"
which followed it remains uncontrolled to the
present moment, seven months later. That the
government would embark upon so massive a
drilling program with such unsophisticated tech-
nologies, was striking indeed.

Further, not only were the technologies in-
adequate and the plans for stopping a leak,
should it occur, nonexistent, but the area in which
the drilling took place was known to be ultra-
hazardous from the outset. That is, drilling was
occurring on an ocean bottom known for its
extraordinary geological circumstances—porous
sands lacking a bedrock "ceiling" capable of con-
taining runaway oil and gas. Thus the continuing
leakage through the sands at various points above
the oil reservoir is unstoppable, and could have
been anticipated with the data known to all par-
ties involved.

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