A Great Cap to an Otherwise Strange Year

By Leslie Westbrook   |   December 31, 2020
Cinematographer Harry Rabin monitors the environmental fixes at Summerland Beach, pointing to one of the two oil wells he helped get capped (Photo credit: Leslie A. Westbrook)

My great Aunt Betty laughed when I bought my house in Summerland in the early 1980s. She told me that her husband, my great uncle Heywood, used to work on those wells when they lived in Summerland in the 1930s. Little did I know at the time that the very oil wells he worked on had been improperly capped with old mattresses, telephone poles, and god-knows-what-all and they would fail decades later. All had been completely abandoned; some were not even sealed or capped at all!

Fast forward almost 30 years later, when it became apparent that “something was rotten” in Summerland. I contacted Das Williams in July of 2010. He was on the Santa Barbara City Council at the time, but was running for California State Assembly. I invited him to walk the beach with me, promising a hamburger at The Nugget after our walk as an incentive. I knew this beach like the back of my hand and wanted to show him firsthand. Das took the bus down to Summerland. 

That day, Das didn’t believe me. He agreed there was lots of tar but thought it was normal. He was used to it, he told me, from surfing Santa Barbara waters (Isla Vista, as I recall). And that’s true: there is natural seepage, as we all know. But I stressed to him that as a longtime resident who walked Summerland beach many times a week the stench and tar and slicks polluting our coastline were not normal.

Das didn’t know me from Adam, but he checked with others, including Lee Heller (who backed me up) and Linda Krop ofthe Environmental Defense Center.

Heal the Ocean executive director Hillary Hauser and retired Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson celebrating the oil well capping (Photo credit: Harry Rabin)

Das was elected that year and took office in 2011. There was a long waiting time for help for the orphaned oil wells, due to the budget crunch in California but in 2016, Das asked then-Governor Jerry Brown for $900,000. Then-State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson went even further and got funding for a comprehensive study and later more funds. By then, Hillary Hauser and Heal the Ocean had joined the bandwagon. 

“It helped to have local advocacy from the community and from Heal the Ocean,” Das recalled on a Zoom call, “And it helped that I was chair of the Natural Resources Committee (2015-2016).” Funds came from the state and Heal the Ocean.

The Becker Well was capped in 2018, but before that, other leaking oil wells were discovered that needed to be dealt with.

In 2017, many people wrote letters to California legislators urging the passage of SB44. They were submitted via the Community Environmental Council – just named California’s nonprofit of the year by the way! Congrats! I still have my email letter that simply stated: “I would be pleased that our once lovely beach may be habitable again with this help. I am so pleased that legislation is now before our state senators thanks to Hannah-Beth Jackson to clean up the leaking and I urge the passing of this bill.”

In October of 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 44, the Coastal Oil Well Clean Up and Remediation Act that required the California State Lands Commission to monitor and plug old “orphaned” oil wells in California waters when the original oil companies that operated the wells no longer existed so could not be held responsible. The bill directs up to $2 million annually, derived from state mineral leases, to a fund set aside for the remediation of improperly abandoned legacy wells. With this fund, the commission began identifying leaking, abandoned wells and prioritized capping the highest risk wells first.

Thank you, again, Hannah-Beth, for authoring legislation and securing $14 million over seven years to cap leaking abandoned oil wells along California’s coastline.

It took a decade of efforts – from people and organizations like Hillary Hauser and Heal the Ocean and the cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Harry Rabin and Hannah-Beth and Das, among many, many others, some known to me, others not, like Nora McNeely Hurley (but just as appreciated), including many community activists and hardworking politicians to get the problem fixed. 

This winter, in the midst of a pandemic, we can celebrate the capping of two more of Summerland’s worst leaking wells, Northstar and Treadwell. There are still some 192 underwater still left. Who knows if and when they could fail?

So,how is the beach? Absolutely gorgeous. The day was perfect and the sea was sparkling and bright. Young children were romping on the beach, the shorebirds were doing their thing. All in a healthy environment.

I took my beach walk last Friday with the amazing Harry Rabin, who lives in Montecito. Harry has been an integral player in the last two well remediations and continues to monitor the beach. Not only did he dive into the murky waters and ruin a wetsuit while trying to locate the leaking wells when this began, but he’s conducting ongoing monitoring of the shoreline and waters on a regular basis. In fact, he got into this when he tracked weird suds at Miramar beach to the source with his drone – which were the two leaky wells just recently capped. I also watched Harry launch his drone from Lookout Park and learned a lot more (including technical details) from this terrific neighbor who spends his spare time making this a better place and doing everything he can to help the ocean. Thank you, Harry! 

Thanks to all the friends, neighbors, politicians, and others who made this and other good things happen in our golden bubble by the sea. How lucky we are!


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