Twenty years ago this month, a huge oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., helped launch the environmental movement with wrenching images of blackened beaches and lifeless, oil-soaked birds.
This past week along the rugged Washington coast, it appeared that despite 20 years of progress in environmental protection, some things haven't changed."It's horrible," said Clifford Perry, 44, a volunteer at a makeshift "dirty bird hospital" set up in this tourist town's convention center to treat thousands of birds mired in a Dec. 22 oil spill.
"Imagine going into a grocery store and suddenly seeing oil over all the food, then going outside and finding oil on your car, on your house, everything," Perry said Thursday, scrubbing a terrified seabird in a pan of soapy water. "That's how it is for these animals."
It was this kind of scene that environmentalists hoped to prevent when they rallied together after the Jan. 28, 1969, blowout of an offshore Union Oil Co. well in the Santa Barbara Channel.
That accident spread an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil along 150 miles of the southern California coast. Globs of tar blackened rocky cliffs and sandy beaches. Greasy mist coated beachside mansions. At least 3,600 birds died, even as volunteers worked around the clock to wash the oil from their feathers.
Disgust and anger translated quickly into political action, spearheaded by a Santa Barbara group called Get Oil Out, better known as GOO.
Environmental awareness soon became politically fashionable, and the 1970s produced a raft of legislation tightening safety procedures required of oil producers and transporters. The Environmental Protection Agency was born, and the Coast Guard was ordered to beef up inspections of oil tankers and barges.
Oil interests and environmentalists agree that technological advances of the past two decades also have made the oil industry safer.
Yet oil spills remain as much a fact of life as they were 20 years ago. Some 10,000 to 15,000 spills into U.S. waters are reported every year during transportation and storage of oil, Coast Guard officials say. Offshore drilling contributes 1,300 to 1,500 more spills a year.
The vast majority of spills are small, sometimes no more than a gallon or two, but major spills are still a regular occurrence.
1988 was a particularly bad year:
On Jan. 2, a storage tank collapsed upstream of Pittsburgh, Pa., spilling 1 million gallons of diesel fuel into the Monongahela River and affecting water supplies in three states.
In April, 365,000 gallons of crude oil spilled from a refinery in Martinez, Calif.
In July, a tanker crashed into a mooring structure in Corpus Christi, Texas, spilling 630,000 gallons of crude oil.
In September, a Mississippi River tanker scraped bottom and spilled 1 million gallons of heavy oil.
Finally, on Dec. 22, a tugboat tore a gash in the barge it was towing in rough seas off Grays Harbor, Wash., spilling up to 231,000 gallons of heavy oil. Storms and strong currents spread the oil along 300 miles of coastline; the worst damage was along some of the Northwest's most pristine beaches, in Washington's Olympic National Park and British Columbia's Pacific Rim National Park.
About 6,000 birds have died; 3,000 more were spotted floundering along beaches and were taken to rescue centers like the one at Ocean Shores. The painstaking bird cleanup may not be finished until the end of this month, and officials said they'll consider themselves lucky if half the cleaned birds survive.
Like the 1969 Santa Barbara spill, the Washington accident promises to provide ammunition for foes of oil development.
Washington Gov. Booth Gardner toured the Ocean Shores bird hospital and vowed to continue fighting oil exploration that the Interior Department is planning for federal waters off the state's Olympic Peninsula.
Environmentalists in Washington, Oregon and California said the spill will bolster their efforts to keep offshore drilling at bay. They also want the Coast Guard to tighten its inspections of oil transporters, and they are lobbying for better methods of assessing the ecological damage of oil spills.
"This spill has certainly brought home to people that we can't wait for things to happen. We have to get involved now," said David Ortman, Northwest representative of Friends of the Earth.
But an industry spokesman said those who would prevent oil spills should not oppose offshore drilling. Less offshore development will mean greater reliance on tanker-delivered foreign oil, which has a much higher record of spills, said Mike Fergus, spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association.
Offshore oil drilling has an excellent safety record, he said. Between 1980 and 1987, oil platforms off California spilled 291 barrels of oil while producing about 453 million barrels of crude, he said. A barrel is 42 gallons.
"To say no more oil development offshore is not reasonable, given the demand that this country has for oil," Fergus said.
And so the arguments rage on, as they have for 20 years. In Santa Barbara, GOO still exists (so does the goo - several barrels a day of crude still bubble up from the ocean floor near the well that blew out in 1969. This seepage is not counted in the spill figures quoted by Fergus.)
GOO didn't get the oil industry out, but the group claims it helped limit the growth of drilling and forced safety precautions that otherwise would not have been taken.
In 1969, 10 oil platforms dotted the the Santa Barbara Channel. Today there are 22, with applications pending for at least six more.
Without citizen action, "we suspect there would be two to three times as many platforms as there are now," said Robert Hopps, president of GOO.
The environmental movement has changed a lot in 20 years. "A lot of our membership has died off, literally," Hopps said.
But now, as then, the sight of an oily bird strikes something deep with the American conscience. Last weekend, 1,000 people reported to the Ocean Shores bird hospital to ask if they were needed.
"We all use oil," said volunteer Perry, still clutching the oil-soaked bird. "I guess we have to pay the price for it."
-David Foster is the AP Northwest regional reporter, based in Seattle.