(Chapter 5 of
Dreaming As One
Poetry, Poets and Community in Bolinas, California
1967 - 1980

by Kevin Opstedal


At 1:45 am on the morning of Monday, January 18, 1971, the tanker Oregon Standard was rammed by its sister ship, the Arizona Standard, in dense fog just outside the Golden Gate. Two of its tanks ruptured spilling between 500,000 and 1.9 million gallons of bunker oil into the Pacific.

On the morning of Tuesday, January 19, the oil washed up on the shore of Bolinas.

''We just got up one morning ,'' Tom Clark remembers, ''and everything smelled like oil.'' Clark knocked on Lewis MacAdams' door at 9:00 a.m. to give him the bad news.

Sculptor Tom D'Onofrio first heard news of the spill early that morning on the radio. He ran out of his house, jumped on his horse and headed for the beach. ''I could smell the oil before I got to the cliff [at Agate Beach]. I got there and looked down and the beach was covered with oil. It was on the rocks, the waves, the logs. Everything. And I started to cry. I'll never forget that moment.''

D'Onofrio's first thought was of Bolinas Lagoon, a haven for migratory birds and seals, and home to a wide variety of native birds and fishes. Thankfully the oil had yet to enter the lagoon, but D'Onofrio knew something had to be done before the next high tide. He called upon his neighbor John Armstrong, and they came up with a plan to construct a boom, made of logs, which would be strung together at the narrow entrance to the lagoon. ''It was a crude plan,'' D'Onofrio said, ''but this was instantaneous thinking.'' He then headed down to Wharf Road to round up volunteers.

By the time MacAdams made it down to the beach dozens of people were gathering. The next high tide was at noon, there wasn't enough time to build the wooden boom and get it into place, so bales of hay were being dropped off for the construction of a temporary boom. ''Everything we do is a guess,'' MacAdams wrote in his account of the spill, A Bolinas Report (Zone Press, 1971). A Standard Oil crew was on the scene constructing another barricade across the lagoon, this one a 3 foot high piece of plastic, which almost immediately was broken by the rush of the flood tide and sank.

Literally hundreds of volunteers showed up, spreading hay at the mouth of the lagoon and along the beach. MacAdams hooked up with Peter Warshall, who has been supervising the bird recovery efforts at the Marine Biology Center, and together they walked up the beach, giving advice to groups of people working to save the birds that were washing up on the sand covered in oil.

The next day Macadams reports that some of the Standard Oil crew, along with Jack Boyce, Michael Bond, and a few other Bolinas citizens, were huddled around John Armstrong who was drawing a diagram in the wet sand of the boom he was proposing to build across the mouth of the lagoon. Logs and wood were hastily brought down to the beach and work on the boom began.

The boom was put together quickly and it worked to keep most of the oil out of the lagoon. But it didn't hold against the high tide that rolled in at midnight. MacAdams joined the crew pulling oil soaked hay from the lagoon. They worked till dawn and were covered in the thick, sticky bunker oil. Getting the oil off your body was a difficult procedure. As MacAdams explained it, ''First you wash in diesel fuel. Then you dry off with rags. Then you wash with cold cream. Then you dry off with rags. Then you wash with soap and water and dry off and you're ready for a dry cheeseburger.''

Another larger boom was built by Armstrong, Bond, Boyce and company. This boom held while three other barriers that were later built by Standard Oil to reinforce the barricade, gave way.

During all of these efforts there were mounting tensions between the Standard Oil crew and the Bolinas volunteers. Standard Oil threatened to call in the state police to keep the Bolinas people off the beach. But there was little faith among the locals that Standard Oil knew what they were doing. It was up to them, the people of Bolinas, to take charge and respond to the crisis.

Greg Hewlett, described by MacAdams as ''a real crazy, visionary guy'', who had worked with Tom Hayden in Newark, was one of the prime movers in the initial response and subsequent political mobilization of Bolinas; as was Peter Warshall, who was in the process of becoming professional naturalist and environmental advocate/activist. He was about to receive a PHD in Primate Studies from Harvard.

Hewlett said of the town's response to the crisis, ''It was an incredible combination of individuals and a goal, and a real caring for what was going on in a place that we really love. There's no way you can recapture the energy that was going on at the time. In those first few days, we pulled some shit off that was borderline miraculous.''

Russ Riviere recalls setting up a communications station in the marine biology laboratory - ''There were three of us on seven phones probably 24 hours a day for a week. We simply decided what we needed, called to get it, and told them to send the bill to Standard Oil. We really didn't know what we were doing, but we pretended pretty well. It was like sitting in the control room of the Wizard of Oz.''

Bolinas became headline news. TV crews rolled into town along with marine biologists, squads of workers from Standard Oil, and volunteers by the truckload. Still others showed up with food for the volunteers. Bolinas was soon inundated with thousands of people The narrow streets were filled with trucks, tractors, bulldozers, and back-hoes. Helicopters were continually circling overhead. By all accounts it was an incredible scene.

Unfortunately the effort to save the birds who were coated in the thick bunker oil was largely futile. ''We saved maybe five out of every 100 birds,'' Hewlett said. ''We tried everything, from corn meal to olive oil to detergent. A lot of it didn't work. This wasn't oil, this was tar.''

It is estimated that the spill killed upwards of 20,000 birds.

One year later Peter Warshall wrote ''We got luck. There's no doubt. Each time another report spells out the consequences of the oil spill, I hear the song: Bolinas must be blessed''. Warshall goes on to explain that the Oregon and Arizona Standard tankers were loaded with Bunker C petroleum which flows easily only at temperatures around 122 degrees fahrenheit. In the cool Pacific waters it forms an asphalt like goo that floats. Another blessing was the weather, there were no storms—had there been, the slick would have most likely covered the entire lagoon. The results of the oil spill could have been much worse.

The most profound and lasting effect of the spill was in how it changed Bolinas. The energy generated by the community's response to the crisis carried over into local politics. Hewlett, Riviere, Warshall, MacAdams, and others got together and formed the Bolinas Future Studies Center, dedicated to the development of alternative forms of energy, agriculture, waste disposal and housing. The mission was to keep Bolinas from becoming a coastal version of Mill Valley—a threat that was very real at the time.

The group went door-to-door, organized neighborhood meetings, and soon delivered some major impacts. They initiated a recall of the directors of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, which was the closest thing to a government entity in this unincorporated municipality. They then set about drafting a community plan and blocked all future development by imposing a strict moratorium on new water hook-ups.

Their first major victory was stopping the Kennedy Sewer project, an ambitious plan to link Stinson Beach and Bolinas through one sewer system. Under the plan, not only would sewage have been released in the ocean, but the larger capacity sewage system would have invited development, perhaps adding tens of thousands of people to the population. There was intense pressure from the county to enact the Kennedy Plan. The antiquated sewage system in Bolinas, which only extended from the downtown area to the little mesa, was dumping into Bolinas lagoon. After haulting the Kennedy Plan, the BPUD was charged with proposing an viable sewage alternative for the town. After much research and debate on the subject, a progressive solution was found in the creation of sewer ponds, a system that worked along lines similar to those of a septic tank.

This heightened political awareness and action in the community was a direct result of the oil spill. The people of Bolinas realized how tenuous the parameters of their community really were and that it was up to them to preserve and protect their town.


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