In dense fog at 1:45 a.m. on Jan. 19, 1971, two massive Standard Oil Company tankers met in a catastrophic collision in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of foul-smelling, gooey oil into the Bay. Fifty years later, this story is both a powerful reminder of how easily accidents can cause environmental devastation and an inspiring story of the strength of people working together on behalf of the environment.
Within hours of the collision, the tide carried thick black oil beyond the Golden Gate into one of the richest coastal marine habitats in the world, from Drakes Bay south almost to Ano Nuevo. Later, water testing showed that 95 percent of marine life had perished to a depth of 10 feet. Dawn revealed more devastation: Hundreds of sea birds, overwintering in our coastal water, were washing ashore stunned, exhausted and smothered in toxic oil. Standard Oil and the State of California had no protocol for handling this kind of disaster. The first responders were thousands of Bay Area citizens.
By noon, an estimated 10,000 volunteers had flocked to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. When the rock radio station KSAN announced the disaster, thousands of counter-culture youths—already galvanized by the activism of the 1960s—responded in droves. KSAN became the information source for the Bay Area, and television stations gave live coverage. Soon people of all walks of life were working together—from school children to elders and Standard Oil workers. In the Point Reyes National Seashore, organizers arrived to find 300 people already there to help. The disaster and the citizen response to it generated newspaper headlines around the world.
The epic effort to fight the spill at Bolinas personified the monumental challenges, innovation and networking that responders shared during the crisis. Tom D’Onofrio was one of the first to respond. At 6:30 a.m. that morning he realized that in a few hours the incoming tide would flood oil into the fragile ecosystem of the Bolinas Lagoon. He envisioned a boom made of log and straw stretched across the mouth of the lagoon to stop surface oil from coming in, and he called skilled friends like John Armstrong who called others. They leapt into action along with Stinson Beach residents helping from across the tidal channel. Horse owners, ranchers and Toby’s feed store responded with truckloads of straw that boaters packed along the boom and others layered onto the beaches to absorb the goo.
At first, Standard Oil officials ordered the locals to stop, but, undaunted, the locals kept working. Eventually the officials returned with admiration, full support and the resources of their company. Individuals stepped up as leaders, including Greg Hewlett, Russ Reviere and Marion Weber, with their organizational skills and resources, and Peter Warshall who brought his Harvard environmental training. A phone bank/coordination headquarters/bird cleaning station was set up at the College of Marin’s marine biology lab. Heavy equipment, generators, truckloads of logs, mountains of hay and huge night lights were everywhere.
In Bolinas, as at other cleanup sites around the Bay Area, hundreds of volunteers worked day and night. Local restaurants, stores, families, churches and community centers provided food, blankets and places to rest, and volunteer doctors treated injuries. People shoveled or used their hands to collect the oil into burlap bags—hard, filthy and stinking work. Along the complex rocky shorelines, hundreds of volunteers used spoons to scrape up oil, especially amid Duxbury Reef’s dense population of delicate marine life.
At R.C.A. Beach, Bolinas photographer Ilka Hartmann captured images of the laborious effort. Standard Oil helicopters had dropped straw onto the water to absorb oil, and volunteers of all ages, along with Standard workers, filled burlap bags that required several people to heave their weight into trucks. Hartmann’s partner, Orville Schell, found a dead seabird horrifically encased in gooey oil and held it skyward; her photograph of that moment, and of Schell’s oil-covered raised fist, have become iconic images and were included in the congressional records of the United States.
No one knew how to help the thousands of birds caught in this grotesque situation. But innovative methods developed as rescue centers were rapidly set up around the Bay Area. Most birds could not be saved, but lessons learned led to the establishment of International Bird Rescue, an organization that today serves around the world. The rescue site at Richardson Bay Audubon Center and Sanctuary and the San Francisco Zoo were run by West Marin resident Burr Heneman, whose expertise was later called to the Exxon Valdez and Gulf oil spills, among others. California government has since developed an Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The Standard Oil Company spill forever changed lives and communities, and inspired a surge of environmental activism. There are countless reverberations from the incident, but there is one most potent lesson: Despite widely differing politics and lifestyles, the power of individuals working side by side in common cause can protect the richly diverse environment of our planet and, in doing so, engender unity.
Elia Haworth is the curator of coastal Marin art and history for the Bolinas Museum.