The Environment: The Dead Channel

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The killing sea of oil off Southern California grew ever wider and more elusive. Though the eleven-day leak on Union Oil Company's offshore rig had been successfully plugged, its 800-sq.-mi. slick returned with each tide. And it was fed anew by a residual leak under Platform A that appeared last week.

Wherever it shifted, the oil brought ecological disaster to bird and sea life. At Santa Barbara's three treatment centers, 1,400 sea-diving birds had been brought in. Only a third survived. Other shoreline birds, such as curlews, plovers and willets, which feed on sand creatures, had fled the area.

The oil and the chemicals that were used to dissolve and distribute the slick were deadly to sea life. Carl Hubbs, marine biology professor emeritus at La Jolla's Scripps Institution, predicted "a complete destruction of life in the intertidal regions along the shore for 20 miles, and considerable destruction for as many as 50 miles." As if in confirmation, the bodies of six seals floated onto Santa Barbara beaches. Autopsies performed on one of three dead dolphins showed that its blowhole had been clogged with oil, causing massive lung hemorrhages.

The Santa Barbara Channel, where the leak occurred, has been one of the best of California's fishing grounds, yielding 27 million Ibs. of fish, including mackerel, anchovies and bonita, in 1967. Since the spill, the Fisherman's Cooperative Association of San Pedro has not taken a fish out of the channel. "We haven't even seen one," says General Manager Tony Pisano. Lobster and crab fishermen retrieving their pots from the channel found their catch alive, but completely covered with oil.

Union Oil announced that it would bear the full cost of repairing the mess, and instituted "Operation Sea Sweep." The company sent a huge cleaning contraption into the slick. Powered by tug, the V-shaped strainer—250 ft. across—skims the surface, and deposits oil in a barge. Trouble was, the swells constantly interrupted the devil's labor.

Brittany and Cornwall. Inevitably, conservationists felt compelled to compare the effect of the Santa Barbara slick with the 100,000 tons spilled into the English Channel in 1967 by the wreck of the tanker Torrey Canyon. In Cornwall, the British government dumped 1,000,000 gallons of detergents and chemicals on the beaches and into the ocean. The sands and rocks now are without a trace of tar, but the sea is practically devoid of plankton, which nourishes such underwater creatures as limpets and winkles. By contrast, when the slick floated to the coast of Brittany, the French insisted that toxic detergents should not be used. Scooping up the oil was slower, but less destructive to sea life. However, the bird population has never recovered from the oil. The rare puffin, which nests in the Channel islands, has almost ceased to exist.

Though detergents and chemicals were used initially at Santa Barbara, by last week the practice had been abandoned. Part of the reason was that the various processes proved ineffective. But in their zeal to restore the beauty of Santa Barbara's beaches—some valued at $2,000 a front foot—crews incurred the ire of conservationists by steam-cleaning the rocks, thereby cooking marine life that had escaped the oil.

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