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Big ’69 oil spill fueled passions for Earth Day

California catastrophe led to international campaigning by SOUMYA KARLAMANGLA THE NEW YORK TIMES | April 23, 2022 at 2:50 a.m.

Americans in the 1960s were becoming increasingly aware of the ways their behavior could be harming the natural world. But it was a an oil spill in 1969 off the coast of Santa Barbara that ultimately served as a catalyst for Earth Day.

April 22 is a day set aside for appreciating the environment and demonstrating support for laws that protect it. The tradition dates to the first Earth Day in 1970, which led to the passage of landmark environmental legislation in the United States.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, detailed how pesticides hurt the environment.

The polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland kept catching fire. The California condor faced extinction. Panic was brewing about a global overpopulation crisis.

“Santa Barbara brought it home to people — that this could affect the well-to-do, this could affect the poor and, of course, the natural environment,” said Denis Hayes, national coordinator of the original Earth Day. “It began to weave all of these issues into a common narrative.” In late January 1969, millions of gallons of crude oil began to pour into the waters off Santa Barbara. It was the biggest oil spill in U.S. history at the time and it was televised.

From their living rooms, Americans watched as sandy California beaches turned black and birds’ feathers were slathered in tar. The corpses of seals and dolphins washed in with the tide.

The spill gave Gaylord Nelson, a senator from Wisconsin, the idea to hold a national teach-in about environmentalism. In the fall of 1969, Nelson recruited Hayes, then a 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard, to organize the event, which would eventually turn into Earth Day.

Hayes said it has never been entirely clear to him why the oil spill captured the public’s imagination the way it did.

“There was something about Santa Barbara that I think no one could explain, except that I think the time was ripe,” he said.

Hayes and a team of young activists began working to organize marches and other events to take place across the country on April 22, 1970. In an article published in March that year, The New York Times described Hayes as a man who “hops around the country like an ecological Dustin Hoffman, preaching mobilization for environmental reform with sober but evangelical militance.” The coast-to-coast demonstrations on that first Earth Day drew a stunning 20 million Americans, one-tenth of the country’s population at the time. The turnout helped prompt unprecedented action at the state and federal levels to safeguard the environment.

In the Golden State, where the oil spill began to influence political discourse heavily, the California Environmental Quality Act was adopted in 1970. Two years later, voters approved the creation of the California Coastal Commission, a state agency in charge of protecting the seashore.

At the national level, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.

“All of a sudden, in rapid succession, they pass law after law after law,” said Kathleen Rodgers, president of EarthDay.org, the nonprofit behind the annual events. She called it nothing short of a miracle.

Today, Earth Day is celebrated in 192 countries. Its mission includes curbing plastic pollution, supporting regenerative agriculture and combating climate change.

Hayes, now 77, spearheaded Earth Day events for half a century. He lived in Seattle for many years but had long promised his wife that they would retire “somewhere sunny.” Now, the pair has settled in, of all places, Santa Barbara.


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