Oil Shouldn’t Have to Spill to Get Us to Fight for the Environment

Those old enough to remember 1969 may recall that it was a very good year for music, moon landings, and the New York Mets. But it was a spectacularly bad time for the American environment.

On January 28 of that year, an offshore oil drill violently ruptured six miles off the California coast. Over the next 10 days, nearly 1,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel every hour. Much of it seeped onto Central Coast beaches and the shorelines of the pristine Channel Islands, killing thousands of birds, dolphins, seals, and other marine life. Between that blowout and a second one discovered on the ocean floor two weeks later, the Santa Barbara oil spill became the biggest of its kind in California history—and remains, nearly half a century later, the third-largest oil spill in U.S. history (behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster).

Then, on June 22, 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River quite literally caught fire. Thanks to images that indelibly made their way onto front pages and nightly newscasts (and even into pop songs), Americans cringingly bore witness to what happens when we allow waterways to fill up with so much flammable material that they become—in defiance of our concept of natural order—fire hazards.

Not every toxic cloud has a silver lining, of course, but good things did come out of these disasters. On the first day of 1970, President Richard M. Nixon inaugurated a new era of federal environmental protection. He signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act—which, among other things, created the Council on Environmental Quality, a special office within the executive branch that coordinates environmental efforts undertaken by various agencies. Less than four months later, 20 million people took part in the very first Earth Day to protest environmental disasters of 1969.

Out of this recognition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was born on December 2, 1970. Bringing up this bit of history illustrates a point that’s all too easy to forget. Much of what we now think of as the modern “environmental movement” represented a reflexive response to disaster—or, at the very least, a response to the disturbing feeling that governmental negligence was allowing a bad situation to grow worse.

Are we getting complacent again?


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