SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP) _ The oil spill threatening California's coast pales in comparison with the offshore oil well blowout that fouled Santa Barbara beaches in 1969 and helped create the environmental movement.

Crews toiled Thursday to clean up more than 290,000 gallons of oil that hovered off the Southern California city of Huntington Beach after being spilled Wednesday by the tanker American Trader.

Estimates go as high as 3.25 million gallons for the spill Jan. 28, 1969, that resulted from failure of a well casing on a Union Oil Co. of California platform 5 1/2 miles off Santa Barbara.

Perhaps more significant, industry experts and environmentalists alike have said public concern for the environment was focused by nationally televised scenes of birds and beaches drenched with sticky black goo. The spill spurred an eight-year drilling moratorium off Santa Barbara.

The blowout ''spewed more than 3.25 million gallons of oil over 800 square miles of water, covered 100 miles of coastline and beaches with a thick, tarry black goo, smothered thousands of birds, fish and other sea life, and helped trigger a new age of environmental awareness,'' the California Coastal Commission said on the spill's 20th anniversary.

Even two decades after the Santa Barbara spill, Union Oil - now renamed Unocal Corp. - claimed that, at most, 840,000 gallons spilled. But the Western States Petroleum Association has said at least 2.1 million gallons spilled.

The spill killed at least 9,000 birds, 8.8 million barnacles, 30,000 mussels and 51,800 limpets, but harm to the fishing industry wasn't proved, according to tallies by biologist Michael Neushul of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Unocal, which ended up paying about $16 million to settle spill-related lawsuits, has argued the spill wasn't an ecological disaster, and that it spurred improvements in drilling technology and training of workers on drilling platforms.

Environmentalists contend oil still leaks from the spill site, but Unocal blames natural oil seepage from the ocean floor.