Bay Crossings Article

From San Francisco Bay to the Gulf of Mexico: Putting to Use Lessons from the Cosco Busan

By 
Deb Self, Executive Director
From the June 2010 edition of Bay Crossings

Though the Gulf of Mexico is almost two thousand of miles away from San Francisco Bay, the implications of the ongoing BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster reverberate across the country. Sadly, it strikes a special chord here in the Bay Area, where we witnessed the effects of a major oil spill in the Bay less than three years ago. The message is clear:  despite numerous oil spills and many new federal requirements for oil spill response, our government (and private oil companies) remain unprepared and unequipped to deal with oil spills in our nation’s waters.

When the British Petroleum oil well exploded and began gushing oil on April 20, 2010, not only was there the tragic loss of eleven lives, but one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of the U.S. began to unfold. The vast scale of the spill, the inability to stop the leak and the number of states affected quickly posed an unprecedented emergency response challenge for the Coast Guard, local governments and residents across the Gulf Coast.

Recent estimates peg the leak at greater than a million gallons of oil per day, which equates to a Cosco Busan’s amount of oil spilled every 69 minutes. According to those estimates, we are well upwards of 30 million gallons of oil released into the Gulf so far – three times the amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez in 1989 in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The use of toxic dispersants has effectively suspended the oil under the water or caused it to sink deep into the marine habitat, where its impact on the marine food chain is a grave concern. Bacterial interaction with the oil has also created a new red algal bloom, which deprives mammals and fish of oxygen.

Damage to the fragile coastal ecosystems of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and Texas is projected to be much worse than the devastation of the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Some of the oil has already worked its way into the Gulf Coast’s sensitive grassy marshlands, where it may impact wildlife populations for decades. In addition to decimating the Gulf coastal ecosystems, there is a growing possibility that the oil will sweep around the Florida Keys and head north along the Atlantic Coast on the Gulf Stream.

As many readers will remember, San Francisco Baykeeper is a veteran of the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, which dumped just over 50,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper has now joined with other oil spill veterans in the Waterkeeper Alliance to provide technical expertise to the six Gulf Coast Waterkeepers:  Louisiana Bayoukeeper, Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper, Mobile Baykeeper, Emerald Coastkeeper, Apalachicola Riverkeeper and Galveston Baykeeper. We have been in constant contact, answering their technical questions, helping them develop interactive maps to target areas for protection and helping them develop systems for mobilizing their volunteers to conduct shoreline surveys, document damage and report oiled wildlife.

One of the most important lessons learned from the Cosco Busan oil spill was the failure of Federal and State agencies and the responsible party to adequately communicate with local officials or to work with local nonprofits that were most knowledgeable about the area’s waterways and resources. Baykeeper has been working hard for the past two years to improve these systemic issues, with some good successes. Under the Bay Area’s new oil spill response plan, local governments and nonprofits are and an integral part of the oil spill planning and response effort.

To avoid the kinds of coordination and communication problems experienced during the Cosco Busan response, Baykeeper has been advocating forcefully for Coast Guard officials in the Gulf to turn to local communities for their knowledge of local waterways to understand how best to protect the shoreline. Though Mobile Baykeeper was initially refused access to  the command post, our sister group has finally become an integral member of the Incident Command System – thanks in part to the many Bay Area Coast Guard and California officials who were called in to help run the response in Mobile. Working closely with Mobile Baykeeper, responders are now putting our new volunteer plan into action and relying on Mobile Baykeeper volunteers to help conduct field assessments and advise on where boom should be laid.

In Louisiana, BP has contracted with some fishing vessels to help the response teams find the most important places to lay protective boom. While this shows some welcome creativity, however, oil spill officials have failed to communicate in any meaningful way with local nonprofits. Louisiana Bayoukeeper and Lower Mississippi Riverkeeper are responding on their own and have now turned their attention to mapping the shoreline impacts and documenting damage to hold BP accountable financially. Baykeeper’s staff scientist is on the ground in Louisiana helping with that effort. Meanwhile, Baykeeper’s field coordinator is doing similar work with the Emerald Coastkeeper, helping to document the pre-oiled shoreline and assess post-oil damage along the Florida panhandle.

As the BP oil disaster continues, it is clearer than ever that offshore drilling is too great a risk for our ecosystems and communities. We urge readers to support national reforms to hold BP accountable for all damages from the Gulf oil disaster and to call for a ban on further offshore drilling on the outer Continental Shelf. Meanwhile, federal oversight agencies need to improve regulation of BP’s other risky oil pursuits, such as mining the tar sands in Alberta, Canada’s pristine plains.

We encourage you to stay informed and keep the pressure on for reform. For the latest developments, follow our posts at www.baykeeper.org, on Facebook and Twitter, or check out our field blog from the Gulf at sfbaykeeper.blogspot.com. Make a donation to support the Gulf Coast Waterkeepers at www.saveourgulf.org.