As well as bits of tar, plastic bagfuls of oil-smudged discarded gear were collected by "official" volunteers.
Ethan Turpin

After cleaning up oil on the beach the first night of the spill, I signed up for HazCom training through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife when it became available to the public. The public program was a first for a spill like this, and it was in response to the outcry to be allowed to clean our beaches. I truly hope that what I witnessed was a new process getting its legs, but I fear it was a public-relations production, not a cleanup project. It felt like a betrayal of community trust.

The first day was a classroom course of information that was quite eye-opening about the airborne toxins I’d been exposed to on May 19. We learned of the carcinogenic vapors off-gassing in the first days of the spill — it would have been helpful for local emergency services to have stated that warning early on, maybe on Caltrans signs on the highway. Now, hazards would only result from eating the tar. I understand they needed to cover the bases in this streamlined version of a weeklong Cal/OSHA training, but the four hours of information could have been summarized in 30 minutes and taught on-site. The importance of gloves was the main thing I took away. In any case, we were thanked for our spirit and given certificates.

On Saturday, two school buses took us to Gaviota State Beach for the cleanup, passing the spill and affected beaches far to the east. Why were we there? I asked a plain-clothed supervisor, were they concerned about the aggregate amount of oil in the channel, which would include natural seepage? He sent me to a Fish and Wildlife officer, who gestured to some golf-ball-sized tar and said they didn’t know where this oil came from; chemical fingerprinting was underway.

We signed in and received our gear. We were pointed to a Wells Fargo tent with food, heard more safety warnings — mostly dealing with heat exhaustion from wearing the protective clothing — picked out our kitty litter scoopers, and were assigned team leaders.

Once on the shore, oil in chains of dots ranging in size from BB shot to nickels confronted us. Had we not dedicated our day to oil spill cleanup, we might have considered this tar part of a normal Santa Barbara beach day. We would not have been alone in that thought. Kids swam in the water, and parents relaxed on the sand, doing their best to enjoy a view now filled with men and women in white hazmat suits.

Ethan Turpin

Clearly it was we who were out of place; the oil spill was 10 miles east of Gaviota, flowing further southeast toward Goleta. After about an hour of struggling to snare tiny pieces of tar with my scooper, I began chatting with other workers, who were equally perplexed. We really couldn’t find any more tar, but some stuffed large clumps of dry seaweed into bags in case there was tar caught in it.

A photographer rallied people for a group shot, and though we’d signed photo waivers, a few of us avoided it. We felt silly and rather duped. On the first night of the spill, I had removed between 15 and 20 gallons of oil in one hour. I’d be surprised if our crew of dozens removed that much the entire afternoon. We certainly generated bags of waste with our single-use protective gear.

I have no regrets about either the immediate and toxic cleanup or the highly managed and confusing one. Despite the insult of a good 10 hours of time and goodwill squandered, at least I had a look inside. Maybe what I saw were the birth pangs of a new, interagency inclusion of citizen volunteers, but I wonder if the top of the pyramid running the program was influenced by those benefiting from a perception that the spill is small and neatly wrapped up with public buy-in. Liability concerns could be so great they won’t put volunteers near the spill, but the people I worked with felt suckered into a very time-consuming and surreal charade. If they weren’t willing to put us where the oil was, they should have just cancelled.

Some hard questions remain. For instance, why weren’t Santa Barbara County Fire Department hazmat teams allowed to respond immediately?

Given the national media coverage of volunteers leading the initial cleanup efforts, a competition for perceptions of this spill has emerged. My main sense of loyalty is to the ecology of our channel. I would love to see an efficient and effective cleanup and for the truth to be told about the oil spill’s impacts so we can assess the health of the area going forward.


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