Bay Crossings Article

One Year After the Oil Spill: Is the Bay Any Better Protected?

By 
Sejal Choksi
From the November 2008 edition of Bay Crossings

On November 7, 2007, the Cosco Busan container ship collided with the Bay Bridge, spilling more than 50,000 gallons from the ship’s enormous fuel tanks and causing San Francisco Bay’s largest vessel-related oil spill in over a decade. The failure by response agencies to accurately evaluate and quickly communicate the scale of the spill allowed bunker fuel to spread throughout the Bay and onto beaches, marshes, wetlands, eelgrass beds and other sensitive wildlife habitats. Since last November’s oil spill, Bay Area legislators and environmental advocacy groups like San Francisco Baykeeper have been working to pass new laws to address the deficiencies in California’s oil spill policies and procedures that were highlighted by the spill. Baykeeper is proud to say that our advocacy has resulted in better preparation and response measures for future oil spills in the Bay. Unfortunately, there are still many reforms to be made before the Bay is truly protected against another emergency.

The oil spill bills introduced by the California Legislature covered a wide spectrum of issues, from increasing the readiness standards for oil spill response agencies to requiring the California Department of Fish and Game to close waters to fisheries within 24 hours of an oil spill. In September, Governor Schwarzenegger took action on ten oil spill bills that had passed the California Legislature and reached his desk. The Governor signed seven of the bills into law, including a bill sponsored by Baykeeper requiring local volunteers to be trained to respond to oil spills and be adequately equipped with cleanup gear and booms (floating barriers), as well as the swift notification of local emergency responders when a spill occurs.

 While these seven bills will substantially improve California’s oil spill policies, the Governor missed an important opportunity to better protect the Bay from future spills when he vetoed three key bills. He vetoed one measure that would have increased the fee on oil production by three cents per barrel to help fund spill-prevention programs and one bill that would have reduced the oil spill response time in San Francisco Bay from six hours to two hours. As we saw from the Cosco Busan response, what happens in the first few hours of an oil spill determines how much of the spill can be contained before it spreads, how much oil can be recovered from the water and the severity of impacts to wildlife and shorelines. The Bay’s strong tides and currents make it especially important to contain a spill within the first two hours, before the oil dissipates and becomes more difficult to collect and remove. Response agencies must be required to immediately contain oil with booms at the spill site, and local officials should be prepared to set up protective gear along sensitive shorelines to deflect oil that escapes from the spill site within the first two hours.

Governor Schwarzenegger also vetoed a bill that would have funded the research and development of new spill response technologies. This bill was badly needed to ensure that responders have the most effective tools to contain spills and prevent oil from spreading onto Bay shorelines and contaminating wildlife. Despite California’s law requiring oil spill responders to use the “best achievable technology,” most of the equipment used in the Cosco Busan oil spill cleanup was developed in the 1960s and was completely inadequate in the swift currents of the central Bay. It is crucial that the state fund research and development efforts to create and test better equipment for oil spill containment, as well as technology to improve oil spill prevention, cleanup and wildlife rehabilitation.

By fixing the policies that govern oil spill preparation and response, we can ensure better planning in advance of an emergency, improved communication between federal and state response agencies and local authorities, training for local volunteers to become emergency responders and enhanced technology to contain spills. Our waterways are too important not to do everything we can to protect them, and Baykeeper is going to continue to press for local and state reforms that will better prepare us for the next emergency in the Bay. To make a contribution to support our efforts, or to read more about the new oil spill laws, visit us at www.baykeeper.org.