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Oil-Soaked Straw of ’69

Has anyone asked what happened to all that oil-saturated straw that was collected from the 1969 oil spill? I know where some of it is located, quite a bit of it actually.

Back in 1972 I was renting a house with three other guys just north of Tajiguas Canyon on the 101’s frontage road. The water from our water well was awful. It stained everything brown and orange, smelled like oil, and had an oil slick sheen on its surface when pooled. We only used it to flush the toilet, wash dishes with lots of detergent, and occasionally take a shower. We hauled in our drinking and cooking water and did our laundry in town. But as a 20-year-old surfer paying $17 a month in rent, it was worth it.

But when our water well began to fail, we went up Tajiguas Canyon and asked the owner for assistance. He said he’d encouraged a friend to invest in the 40-acre parcel where our house and another were located. He showed us a pipeline that ran down the canyon to our house and said we could hook into it. But before we could get that together, a man who’d just moved into the house next to ours got permission to pull the pump from the well and fix the problem.

What he found was that the pipe from the submersible pump had so many corroded holes in it that all the water being pumped to the surface just leaked back out and never made it. That water not only stained surfaces, smelled bad, and had an oil sheen, it was corrosive as well.

Since two of my roommates were archaeologists, we went up the canyon behind our house to see if there was a reason for the bad water in the well. We found a canyon filled with the oil-saturated straw just above our well site. I don’t know why that location was selected, but that is where a lot of the oil-saturated straw ended up.

I was attending Santa Barbara High School at the time of the blowout, and we went down to the harbor to get the jobs that were being offered at high pay. I saw this straw being thrown on the oil washing onto the beach, and the men out on the ocean in the skiffs spreading straw on the oil slick. Later they picked it back up with pitchforks and put it in drums to be loaded into trucks.

The very same oil-saturated straw I found dumped in the canyon above where I lived may still be there as far as I know. Maybe it’s a toxic waste site under modern definition but undetected as of yet.

It is hard to clean up a mess without making another mess somewhere else. Since a mess is a mess, let’s just try and not make any more of them.

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