Earth Day: How a California oil spill started a movement to protect our planet
LOS ANGELES - Each year, more than a billion people around the world celebrate Earth Day in an effort to raise awareness about taking care of our planet and the threat of climate change. It might not surprise you to learn that the genesis of this day of action was a man-made disaster.
Earth Day got its start after a huge oil spill off the Santa Barbara coastline in Southern California on Jan. 28, 1969, according to the Smithsonian.
That day, oil began pooling on the surface of the ocean about 6 miles from the shore. A rig known as Platform A was on its 14th day of drilling when a blowout happened, sending mud and oil 90 feet above the platform's floor.
Platform A was owned and operated by Union Oil, an El Segundo-based petroleum company. Union Oil had persuaded the government to issue a waiver for the company's fifth well. In order to install ocean wells, steel protective casing was required to extend at least 300 feet below the ocean floor, but Union Oil was given permission to only install about 239 feet of casing for the well.
Union Oil tried to stop the flow of oil from the well, but it continued to bubble to the surface, and natural gas and oil squeezed through cracks in the ocean floor.
For 11 days, about 9,000 gallons of oil per hour spilled out into the sea. When Union Oil finally stopped the leak, about 3 million gallons had spread out over 800 square miles of ocean and 35 miles of beach.
The spill, which was ranked as one of the worst oil spills to ever occur during that time, gained national attention and people began taking action. Local groups formed and urged the government to prohibit drilling in the Santa Barbara Channel.
In an effort to clean up its mess, Union Oil had planes cover the slick in powders and sent divers to the ocean floor to try to cement the fissures. Still, the oil ended up covering beaches in muck and killed about 3,700 birds, fish and other ocean animals.
The national attention on the disaster brought politicians from all over the country to see the damage first-hand, including Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson.
In September 1969, Nelson proposed the idea for a nationwide teach-in about protecting the environment, which eventually led to the development of Earth Day.
The first Earth Day happened on April 22, 1970, where an estimated 20 million people held teach-ins and demonstrations across the country, and by the end of 1970, President Richard Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency.
Nearly 50 years later, people still celebrate Earth Day all around the world. The theme for 2019's Earth Day is "Protect Our Species," according to earthday.org.
The push for this year's theme is to raise awareness about dwindling populations of plants, insects and wildlife. Some of the endangered or threatened species include bees, coral reefs, elephants, giraffes and whales.
To learn more, visit the Earth Day organization website by clicking here.