The Environmental Defense Center: 50 Years of Protection, Advocacy and Education
Pockets of rain passed overhead on the 2 mile walk to the Environmental Defense Center’s (EDC) headquarters in Santa Barbara, California. It is impossible to ignore the breathtaking beauty of the area… even in the rain.
Behind me spread peaceful, wide beaches, shaped by the waves of thousands of years. Before me rose the undulating foothills of the imposing and majestic Santa Ynez Mountains, its tops hidden by thick shreds of clouds. Santa Barbara is nestled here, in this oasis.
I had volunteered to help set up and work the EDC’s “TGIF” event. Hundreds of donors, members, community members, volunteers, elected officials and board members would come to celebrate the start of the summer season and to support the work of the EDC.
As I arrived and began to help set up tables and chairs, I thought about the disaster which led to creation of the EDC… an event that shocked and outraged our nation.
It was 1969. Ten years before the birth of the EDC. A time when the music of Woodstock captured the spirit of America, demonstrations took place across the country protesting the Vietnam War, and the world was awed by Neil Armstrong’s steps on the moon.
In late January of that year, just off the coast of Santa Barbara, an oil crew was retrieving a drill pipe from the bottom of a deep-sea well when it ruptured and oil started pouring into the ocean.
For 11 days, over 3 million gallons of oil spilled and spread across 750 miles of ocean, completely coating 35 miles of southern California coastline.
The nation watched helplessly as populations of birds, fish and marine mammals died. News stories showed photos of the corpses of seals and dolphins washing up on the shore and thousands of birds lying dead or dying in the sludge.
The public was shocked by how unprepared the oil company was to either stop the spill or to do anything to clean up the shoreline, and they were outraged when the drilling company suspended drilling only for a few hours – resuming operations almost immediately after the accident, even as more and more oil piled up on shore.
That tragic event shocked government into action and led to the creation of the National Environmental Policy Act later that same year. The next few years saw the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and legislation such as the Clean Water Act (1972). In Santa Barbara, community and government leaders realized they needed an organization on the ground, focusing on utilizing these new tools to protect the area from future harm. In 1977 the Environmental Defense Center was founded.
As I volunteered during the event, I met several EDC team members, including Karleena Quarles (Office Manager/Event Coordinator) and Alicia Roessler (Staff Attorney), both of whom shared stories of their passions to protect the area. I also learned how important the EDC’s work is today.
Our National government supports and encourages offshore drilling and the seemingly endless funds of giant oil and natural gas companies make them difficult to fight in court. There has also been an uptick in frequency of intercontinental shipping and large cargo ships put large marine mammals in danger (in 2007, for example, five endangered whales were killed in collisions with large cargo ships. Since then the EDC has worked to enact legislation to alter shipping lanes and/or speeds). There is also a constant threat to the environment (such as the groundwater) by industrial and human development.
It all sounded overwhelming! I was encouraged, however, by the many victories of the EDC in helping pass legislation to protect the environment and in stopping various projects that would harm the environment (such as helping preserve over 100,000 acres of open space and forcing the retirement of 40 offshore oil leases). In addition, the EDC partners with over 100 non-profits to share resources when working to protect an area, and to spread awareness and education.
As I enjoyed live music and listened to the sponsor nonprofits share latest statuses and news of environmental actions, I met many of the attendees. It seemed everyone I spoke with had meaningful stories of their involvement and what the EDC meant to them individually and to the community.
Many expressed the EDC as providing a powerful voice that helped them build a future for generations to come.
I found these passions truly inspiring and powerful. There is tremendous possibility in community action!
Today, 50 years after that oil spill of 1969, it is still ranked as the 3rd largest spill in US history.
After the event I made my way back to the beach. The rain was long gone and the sand glistened in the setting sun. The waves lapped she shore and I listened to the call of the birds as they dove into the ocean for their dinners.
50 years ago this beach was devastated.
This anniversary served as a stark reminder of the need to work together with industry to protect our fragile environment.
It is also an inspiring reminder of the resilience of people and the power of communities acting together with one voice.
THANK YOU for joining me this week!
To learn more about the Environmental Defense Center, and to support their causes, please visit: https://www.environmentaldefensecenter.org/
- Color photos are mine, from my rainy, yet beautiful, trip to Santa Barbara 😉
- Black and white photos of oil rig with spill, dead seal and map of spill are from: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969-20150520-htmlstory.html
- Black and white photo of citizens trying to clean up spill from: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/1969-oil-spill-near-santa-barbara-was-galvanizing-environmentalism-n361911
- Phillips, A. (2014) “How a Massive Oil Spill in 1969 Changed Everything” ThinkProgress.com, available at: https://thinkprogress.org/how-a-massive-oil-spill-in-1969-changed-everything-c4da7ecd5038/
- 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. Wikipedia. Retrievable at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1969_Santa_Barbara_oil_spill
- Information pages found on EDC website at: https://www.environmentaldefensecenter.org/beginnings/
- Hardy, D. (2005) Website for project for Bren School, USCB (FYI – this also has a great assortment of photos and information). Found at: www2.bren.ucsb.edu/~dhardy/1969_Santa_Barbara_Oil_Spill/About.html