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
''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
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
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
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
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.