This past January and February marked the 53rd anniversary of one of the country’s worst environmental disasters.
At the same time, it also gave birth to an annual celebration that takes place around the world.
Cities around the U.S. and world have already held, or will hold, events before the end of April to commemorate Earth Day, which is officially Friday.
But before celebrating environmental awareness with various festivals, people had to recall the disaster that motivated the creation of Earth Day itself.
On Jan. 28, 1969, a massive oil spill started in the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, California.
The spill kept going into February and at the time was the largest oil spill ever in U.S. waters, but has since been surpassed by the 1989 Exxon Valdez (Alaska) and 2010 Deepwater Horizon (Gulf of Mexico) spills.
The source was a blowout on Union Oil’s Platform A in an offshore oil field that saw between 80,000 and 10,000 barrels of crude oil spilled over a 10-day span.
Nearly 4,000 birds died and numerous other marine mammals and other wildlife perished in the disaster.
Over the next five years, multiple lawsuits were filed against Union Oil to help pay for the damages.
The city of Santa Barbara received $4 million, and the owners of homes, hotels and other buildings that sustained damage were awarded $6.5 million.
After seeing the damage from an airplane, Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin and environmental advocate Denis Allen Hayes were inspired to create Earth Day.
The first Earth Day on April 22, 1970 featured rallies and celebrations around the country, and President Richard Nixon planted a tree with first lady Pat Nixon on the south lawn of the White House.
In 1990, Earth Day became an international event.
This story was first published in 2019. It has since been updated.