Passengers aboard the Condor Express tossed flowers in the water to commemorate 39 years of environmental activism.

Michelle J. Wong

Passengers aboard the Condor Express tossed flowers in the water to commemorate 39 years of environmental activism.

Clean Water 39 Years Later

Environmental Movement Pioneers Take Commemorative Cruise to Platform A

The recent oil spills by Greka are seen as an abomination by many, but people who were around in 1969 remember a worse time. On January 28, 1969-without the protective cloak of environmental regulations and agencies-the underwater pipe at Platform A burst, marking the beginning of a gargantuan oil spill that lasted for months. As the black oil spurted into the Santa Barbara Channel, something special happened. People-regular people who were artists, students, and homemakers-decided that enough was enough, and that they were going to let the world know that this could never happen again.

left to right: MarK McGinnes, Bud Bottoms, Abe Powell and Paul Relis.
Click to enlarge photo

Michelle J. Wong

left to right: MarK McGinnes, Bud Bottoms, Abe Powell and Paul Relis.

This single event, known as the “environmental shot heard ‘round the world,” marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. Some of the most effective environmental agencies that we have today-both local and federal-began as a result of the ‘69 Unocal oil spill. Although he had signed the ok for drilling to occur in the Santa Barbara Channel nearly ten years before the spill, Stewart Udall-who had served as Secretary of the Interior under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations-came out to Santa Barbara after the spill to assure citizens that this would never happen again.

Get Oil Out (GOO), an activist organization that has been fighting for a cleaner environment since the ‘69 spill, had a commemorative cruise aboard the Condor Express on Sunday, with environmental movement pioneers like James “Bud” Bottoms, Marc McGinnes, Paul Relis and Estelle Foster telling people how they were touched that people are still involved in many of the same campaigns that began years ago. Over 50 people were on the boat, which motored out to the infamous platform A, and people tossed flowers into the water in memory of all of the animals that perished, and in honor of the work that has been done to prevent subsequent disasters from occurring.

When the spill occurred, James “Bud” Bottoms, a local artist and member of a think tank, was incensed, and organized 200 people to march out to the wharf-then a working pier for the oil company-and shut it down. “We had thousands of people sign a petition to get the oil companies out, and we sent little glass bottles filled with oil from the beaches to every US Senator,” he said. “Nobody knew what the word ecology meant back then.” Bottoms, along with other community members, started Get Oil Out (GOO), which was dedicated to getting the oil companies out of Santa Barbara and making sure an environmental catastrophe like that would never happen again.

Others got involved as well. Marc McGinnes-now a well known Santa Barbara activist and one of the founders of the Environmental Defense Center-was involved in GOO from the get-go, and eventually went on to teach the longest-running course in environmental law in the country at UCSB. “The event that occurred here at Platform A really did trigger a national movement,” he said to passengers on the cruise. “We knew that one year later, we could attract the top environmental and political leaders to Santa Barbara. It wasn’t about whining, but it was a watershed to create change.” He continued that for him and for many, the environmental movement that came out of the oil spill was spiritual in nature.

Paul Relis-the founder of the Community Environmental Council-was a UCSB student when the spill occurred. “I had a choice of going to class or going down to the wharf,” he said. “I made a left turn and headed downtown, marking a major life-changing moment for me. The spill was very dramatic for me. I love the coast and like to surf, and coming up here from Long Beach was like being in Shangri-La. I remember looking down from a small plane at all of the oil coming up, and being transfixed by all of the black.” When he got involved with the infant environmental movement, Relis knew it was the beginning of something big. “We didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of the modern environmental movement.”

According to Charlie Eckberg, a volunteer with GOO for the past two decades, they continue to push to get oil out and get alternatives in. Tess Bernhardt, a first year student in the Bren Masters’ program, is from the Bay area, and was appalled by last year’s oil spill in San Francisco. “I was just devastated,” she said. “I called Charlie Eckberg to see how I could get involved.” Since then, she has attended hearings and written comment letters-all independent of her studies at the Bren School. “I have a strong science background, but I’m much more interested in policy now.”

James "Bud" Bottoms
Click to enlarge photo

Michelle J. Wong

James “Bud” Bottoms

Because of the passion and persistence of a few people almost 40 years ago, communities have the power to demand environmental protection. Things like the US Environmental Protection Agency, the California Environmental Quality Act, and the California Coastal Commission exist because normal people took stake in how the environment would be protected. “When this thing started, the oil companies were a behemoth that loomed over everyone,” said current GOO president Abe Powell. “It seemed impossible to get the upper hand on people with that much money and power. That has changed.”

GOO, in conjunction with the Community Environmental Council and the Environmental Defense Center, are putting on a benefit concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl this spring, to be split between the three organizations. They won’t say who the artists are yet, but GOO leaders could scarcely hide their excitement at what they called an amazing lineup. For more information about GOO, visit their website at

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