The 1971 spill: When people worked together for the environment


Today, as our environment faces many threats, it is timely to remember the power of people who fearlessly join together to take positive action. In 1971, a terrible oil spill outside the Golden Gate threatened Marin’s coast. Young people in Bolinas led a monumental effort to protect the Bolinas Lagoon and save wildlife. One of the leaders was Tom D’Onofrio, who told the following riveting story in an oral history taken by Bobbi and David Kimball in 2008. He died in 2015. I edited the museum transcript and the Light adapted it for print here.

— Elia Haworth, Curator of Coastal Marin Art and History, Bolinas Museum 


On Jan. 19, 1971, Tom D’Onofrio, a Bolinas resident, wood sculptor and Methodist minister, was making coffee before dawn when he heard on the radio that two Standard Oil tankers had collided under the Golden Gate Bridge. A massive oil slick was moving north. 

Tom dropped the coffee pot on the floor and raced to the bluff on Poplar Road. “It smelled like a refinery,” he said. “I looked down and everything was covered in oil. I felt like somebody had just struck me in the stomach. Then I thought, ‘My God, the lagoon!’” He was downtown by 6:30 a.m. The tide was going out, but he knew it would turn by 10 a.m., bringing the slick into the sensitive ecosystem. Tom, who had studied forestry, visualized a log boom across the lagoon. He began calling people, and they called others to bring their skills, logs, trucks, boats, cable, lumber, wheelbarrows, shovels, rakes and gloves. Horse owners brought straw and hay.  By 8 a.m. there were around 1,000 Stinson Beach and Bolinas people working on both sides of the channel, which was shrouded in the morning fog. 


Everybody’s working. We started to back the logs down onto Wharf Road, and [from the Stinson side], this voice comes out of the fog and says, ‘Do not drop those logs.  I repeat, do not drop those logs. This is the county emergency something-or-other and if you drop those logs, you’re in violation of Section 4898 of the code of Marin County Emergency Response….so cease and stop or you’re subject to arrest.’ 

The fog parts and we look over and there’s these half-dozen guys in suit coats and ties, white hardhats and clipboards standing in a circle and this guy with a megaphone. It was Standard Oil and the county engineers and there were a couple sheriffs. We said, ‘Where are your workers? There’s nobody out here but us people. We’ve got exactly two hours and 10 minutes to get this thing done. We’re not stopping. You want to arrest us? Arrest us, but we’re getting this thing done. We were craftsmen, we were builders, we were workmen, right? That’s what we do. 

There were heroes everywhere. The place was filled with heroics. Men and women and kids—everybody was pitching in. To get these logs tied together with cables, we were pounding in these 20-penny nails, bending them back over a cable like that; I mean, that’s dangerous. At about 9:30 we got the boom in place and we just hit slack tide. By this time, we had gotten a hold of Toby’s in Point Reyes Station—Toby Giacomini—and they sent down load after load of straw. People were giving up their best horse food for this project. We had two, three thousand bales of hay from town, plus all the stuff that came down from Toby’s. We started passing that out, people handing out—almost a human chain of this hay going out, guys in boats taking it out and dumping it over and when the tide shifted the logs pulled in, in kind of a circular arc inward. You could hear it creaking. The flood came in; it did just what we had hoped it’d do: it pushed the hay up against the logs and it held it there because it was coming in and it collected the oil.  The oil gathered on the hay and everybody cheered.

But the problem became, ‘What are you going to do with all this hay that’s contaminated? The moment you grab onto this hay, you’re covered with oil. So everybody’s covered in oil within minutes. Everybody stinks like hell. Just then a chief engineer from Standard Oil arrived with the Sheriff. He said, ‘I fought for your idea because we don’t have a single thing to fight this with. We have nothing. But I’m here to tell you I’ve got a million bucks and we’re going to spend it.’ 

By suppertime, the Marine Biology Lab is like this corporation disaster headquarters… Assignments are given and things were organized and all kinds of leadership people rise up and begin to do these things, like Greg Hewlett and Russ Revere. Another unsung hero—Marian Weber. We ordered—my God, I think we ordered like 15 tractor-trailer loads of logs to be brought down from Feather River. Within the next day we had them there. It was like a beachhead in an invasion; it was unbelievable. Everybody in town was down there in both Stinson and Bolinas. People were coming from all over the Bay Area to help. 

You know how the oil was cleaned up off of these beaches? Burlap bags and tablespoons. You went and you gathered up all the seaweed that came in and you put it in your burlap bag and there’s hundreds, thousands of people on the rocks at low tide scraping with a spoon all the oil you can off each rock.

Sea birds were washing up on shore, stunned and covered in thick, gooey bunker oil. A center was set up at the marine biology lab where people struggled to rescue the birds. Finding a method to clean off the oil was by trial and error; even the local bird scientists had never dealt with such a disaster. The executive director of the Point Reyes Bird Observatory and his staff put in 24-hour days, working with local people, teenagers from Mill Valley and volunteers from all over who poured into town to help.

It was emergent leadership: everybody turned out to be a leader and nobody objected. It was love that motivated this. In those first four hours before Standard Oil came with their million bucks, it was the love of saving that lagoon that motivated every single person that was there. You had to be there to experience the way that everybody worked. Everybody gave from their heart because they love this place…

Other people in other places need to hear this story. How else are you going to change the culture at large unless it’s through small, cellular groups that are successful at creating the lifestyle and a place for their children to grow up in a safe environment where there is free thinking?