Voices of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill

Following a series of cascading mistakes and accidents, the Union Oil Company’s Platform A exploded on January 28, 1969. The blowout spilled about 100,000 barrels of oil along the shores of Santa Barbara, California according to Coast Guard experts, the largest in California’s history.

Beaches of Santa Barbara Harbor, 1969 By Antandrus at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons.
The spill caused massive damage to the coastal areas of Santa Barbara County, but also contributed to increased environmental activism. The passage of the National Environmental Protection Act and the first Earth Day all occurred in the wake of the oil spill.  Commentators have specifically noted the increase in grassroots activism on environmental issues as a result of the spill. The Santa Barbara News-Press was particularly vociferous in its opposition to offshore oil development and penned many editorials demanding changes in how the Union Oil Company and the Department of the Interior conducted operations.

Readers responded similarly, penning numerous Letters to the Editor issuing demands about oil drilling, corporate welfare, and protection of the environment. One artifact of the Letters to the Editor is the existence (in most cases) of addresses of the writer. In a sense, the letters exist in a space and time in which the author penned them.

By using letters to the Editor of the News-Press transcribed by Darren Hardy, and letters to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times that I transcribed, I intend to map the geography of protest about the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill. After topic modeling the letters with Mallet, one frequently used topic was symbolized with the following words:

 oil drilling federal beaches offshore ocean fish government birds historical point children wildlife channel pollution secretary damages coastline leases

I take this topic to have a local concern with pollution that was inherent to Santa Barbarans anger over polluting their local channel and coastline. This topic also describes nature more specifically than another general “nature” topic which included “rivers”, “lakes”, and “planet”. Using CartoDB (which is essentially Google Maps on steroids), I mapped both the letters and how strong the local protest topic existed in each letter.

Expand the map to fullscreen for best viewing and be sure to zoom into the Santa Barbara area.


The offshore oil platforms existing in 1969 are shown in red (data from Bureau of Ocean Energy Management). I expected most of the opposition to come from those living near the sites of environmental harm such as coastal beaches, but some of the strongest voices came from wealthy neighborhoods like Westside Santa Barbara. Letters from Ithaca, New York and southern Connecticut had strong probabilities of the “local protest” topic, which I didn’t expect. With further geographic analysis, additional insights could be gleaned from the letters as they’re situated in space and time.

One of the prime limiting factors with this project was the relatively few letters reviewed for topic modeling. I analyzed 26 letters, fourteen from the Santa Barbara News-Press, six from the Los Angeles Times, and six from the New York Times to get a regional and national papers’ perspectives. Twenty-five letters was a decent number to create an interesting map, but not enough to generate quality topics. In the future, using Natural Language Processing, more letters to the editor, and additional geographic information analysis, historical topics could be reviewed for what an authors location might contribute to their political writings. As this was a sampling of letters, gaps in perspective do remain and ideally a conservative paper would help flesh out the different perspectives that existed on offshore drilling nationally.

Additional analysis of the letters in Voyant:


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