Preparing for an oil spill requires staying in practice and investing in prevention
Speaking at the forum, Zeke Grader, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, said fishing boat captains with vessels at Fisherman's Wharf were ready to be deployed instantly to help contain the spill — but the Coast Guard initially turned them away. "This was a relatively minor spill in a bay, and we were totally unprepared to deal with it," Grader charged. "That is really egregious." Commercial fishing vessels were finally deployed to help with efforts, most venturing out on day five — long after the damage had been done.
San Francisco Baykeeper, a pollution watchdog group, was inundated with thousands of phone calls from volunteers, but the lack of an overarching volunteer coordination plan between governmental agencies and community organizations made it difficult to plug people in, executive director Deb Self noted. The Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) is the state agency under the Department of Fish and Game that works in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard and the financially responsible polluter to react when a spill occurs. Carol Singleton, an OSPR spokesperson, acknowledged that better communication during the Cosco Busan would have made the response more effective.
The spill affected the Bay Area's biologically rich ecosystem. Just 421 of the roughly 1,000 oiled birds recovered by volunteers were successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild, according to the Golden Gate Audubon Society, while nearly 7,000 are estimated to have died. Even a small drop of oil on the feathers of a bird can destroy the animal's natural insulation, resulting in hypothermia.
Singleton said a well-established oil-spill response strategy is in place. "Every vessel and every facility has a contingency plan," she noted. "We're constantly practicing." Since the Cosco Busan, a volunteer coordination plan has been crafted, she said. Ecologically sensitive areas are mapped out and prioritized, and a network of wildlife care facilities stand ready to take in oiled animals.
Following the Cosco Busan spill, members of the Legislature put forth a suite of proposals that came to be known as the "spill bills," resulting in a few stronger protections such as spill-response equipment stationed and ready for deployment in high-risk areas, enhanced funding to care for oiled wildlife, and grants to local governments for oil-spill response tools. However, some ideas for stronger protection got killed by Schwarzenegger's veto pen.
Former Sen. Carole Migden proposed a mandatory spill response time of two hours, but that was vetoed. Sen. Loni Hancock proposed beefing up the state's Oil Spill Prevention Administrative Fund, which is derived from fees on barrels of oil transported into California ports, by upping the charge from 5 cents to 8 cents per barrel. That was also struck down, as was Sen. Mark Leno's proposal to establish grants to develop better containment and cleanup technology.
As the disaster in the Gulf continues to unfold, Dragon of Pacific Environment said grassroots environmental organizations might renew pressure for stricter regulations on some of these fronts.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Another piece of legislation, inspired by the Dubai Star oil spill, is expected to go before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee in early June. The Dubai Star mishap occurred last October when at least 400 gallons of bunker fuel was released into open water near Alameda.
Far smaller than the Cosco Busan incident, the Dubai Star spill still resulted in the deaths at least 100 shorebirds. It happened at Anchorage 9, two miles south of the Bay Bridge, during a fuel transfer — a routine fill-up that occurs roughly 800 times per year.