Drills, baby, drills

Preparing for an oil spill requires staying in practice and investing in prevention

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Birds that become drenched in oil after a spill are treated at WildCare in San Rafael
WILDCARE PHOTO BY ALISON HERMANCE

rebeccab@sfbg.com

The disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be viewed as a wakeup call for the San Francisco Bay Area, Pacific Environment's Jackie Dragon noted at a May 11 forum on oil spill preparedness and prevention.

The forum was planned even before the April 20 explosion of BP's rig, triggering the onset of an out-of-control oil spill that has continued to wreak havoc in the Gulf for nearly a month. Up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day could be gushing from undersea pipeline, according to the highest estimates, which would dwarf the damage caused by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Investigative reports in the New York Times in the wake of the spill revealed that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had issued deep water drilling permits in the Gulf without obtaining permits from a federal agency that assesses threats to endangered species — in violation of federal law — and that MMS routinely overruled staff biologists' safety concerns. The reports suggest the failure of not only a mechanical device, but an entire regulatory system, in which oil company interests appeared to take precedent over public safety and environmental concerns.

Here in California, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for Tranquillon Ridge, a controversial offshore oil drilling project planned off the coast of Santa Barbara. Yet the governor's change of heart doesn't safeguard California's coastal territories from a spill. Millions of gallons of oil are transported in and out of the ports every year, and refinery infrastructure dots the coastline.

"It's all about the initial timeframe," noted Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant who spoke at the forum. Shaken by BP's colossal blunder and wary of the string of failures that led up to last year's Dubai Star oil spill, environmental groups are now pushing for legislation they hope will slash response time by requiring ships to deploy protective boom before pumping fuel, so potential spills could be sopped up immediately.

The precaution would do little to remedy a major spill, however, and it's just a small piece of a wider response puzzle that entails coordination among volunteers, community groups, and multilevel government agencies to accomplish everything from containing the slick, to cleaning beaches, to caring for impacted wildlife.

Although established protocols and a chain of command are in place for responding to oil spills, several speakers at the forum noted that vigilance tends to wane between these catastrophes. The environmental devastation in the Gulf could prove to be a catalyst for investing more energy and resources into safeguarding against the worst.

 

LESSONS LEARNED?

Fortunately, the Bay Area has been spared from the sort of devastating blow that is blackening Gulf of Mexico waters, crippling fisheries, and sending tar balls ashore. However, the bay has weathered two comparatively minor oil spills in the last three years, which could be viewed as learning experiences for a bigger incident.

The Cosco Busan spill occurred in late 2007, when a cargo ship hit the Bay Bridge under foggy conditions and released 58,020 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay. According to a detailed account of the incident response, the vessel collided with the Bay Bridge at 8:30 a.m., and the fuel leaked out in a matter of minutes. Two hours later, the estimated amount spilled was reported at 10 barrels (420 gallons), and hours passed before the actual quantity was revealed. The state official who determined how much had leaked arrived at Yerba Buena Island at 9:45 a.m. to perform an assessment but had to wait more than two hours to be transported to the ship.