Bay Crossings Article

San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Disaster from Cargo Ship Collision

By 
Lola Dvorak
From the December 2007 edition of Bay Crossings

In the early morning heavy fog of November 7, an 902-foot long cargo ship collided with the wooden fender of the delta tower base of the Bay Bridge, spilling 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the San Francisco Bay. Initial reports from the US Coast Guard indicated that the Cosco Busan’s torn hull leaked only 140 gallons of fuel, but within the first hour, the oil was 1/3 of a square mile and fumes were closing down the San Francisco waterfront. The Coast Guard failed to acknowledge these early warning signs that the spill’s magnitude was much greater than initially reported and did not warn the public, local officials or the state’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response agency that the largest vessel accident in over a decade had occurred until nearly twelve hours later.

In the ongoing days and weeks after the spill, the spill response agencies continued to mismanage cleanup efforts. Not only were communication protocols disregarded, but resources were turned away as the spill went unboomed. The ship was moved with its 90 foot gash from the crash site at Treasure Island to Anchorage 7 for lightering, trailing a thick wake of oil. Because the spill was not contained early when it was still compact, toxic bunker fuel spread quickly throughout the Bay and out the Golden Gate, contaminating coastlines as far north as Point Reyes and as far south as Monterrey Bay. Resources deployed by the Cosco Busan’s owner, Regal Stone, in the days to come proved inadequate at best.

Thousands of Bay Area citizens flooded oil response hotlines and wildlife rehabilitation centers to find out how they could help and to report oil sightings or distressed wildlife. Due to safety precautions and a quagmire of bureaucratic regulations among local and federal governments, most offers of volunteer labor and donated supplies were turned down. Several citizen groups, frustrated by the delay, initiated guerrilla cleanups by buying their own safety equipment and arranging for hazardous waste pickups. These grassroots efforts motivated officials to develop a limited number of safety trainings and organized cleanups to harness the outpouring of volunteer energy. Over 1,500 volunteers were eventually trained and outfitted to handle the hazardous waste from the spill. The public’s involvement will remain critical to cleanup success because small amounts of tar and oil will continue to wash up on shorelines in the upcoming weeks or months.

While the collision thankfully did not harm the Bay Bridge, its impact on the San Francisco Bay’s aquatic ecology will continue to grow in the upcoming months and years. Bunker fuel oil, the gooey byproduct from gasoline refining, is toxic to aquatic organisms even in small amounts, and as the winter bird migration picks up steam, thousands of birds will ingest contaminated fish and invertebrates. 

Over one thousand birds have died so far and the International Bird Rescue Research Center estimates that 10 to 100 thousand more may die in the next few months. Oil coats birds feathers, making it hard to stay warm, and is poisonous when ingested. In addition to the resident seabirds and ducks such as surf scoters and western grebes, thousands of shorebirds are migrating south this time of year and depend on the Bay’s grassy wetlands and mudflats where oil cleanup is more difficult. The fall run of Central Valley chinook salmon traveling inland and the December herring spawning season are also threatened.

The local commercial Dungeness crab season has been delayed as crabs are tested for oil contamination from the spill. Both the commercial crabbing and fishing industries have filed class-action suits against the Cosco Busan to recover economic damages.

Officials at the local, state and federal level have pledged to investigate why the Cusco Busan accident happened in the first place and to improve communications and oil spill response. Senator Barbara Boxer, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and Berkeley Assemblywoman Loni Hancock have initiated legislative hearings on the government’s handling of the spill and a criminal investigation has been launched by the National Transportation Safety Board. The Coast Guard is conducting an internal investigation, with a report promised within 90 days, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly doubted the Coast Guard’s impartiality at a field hearing last week.

In preparation for future oil spills, the public can participate in Hazardous Materials Operations trainings run by the Association of Bay Area Governments (http://www.abag.ca.gov/). Assistance with native plant restoration and ongoing cleanups can help stabilize sensitive baylands in the meantime.  Wildlife will feel the impacts of the spill for months to come, even when the most obvious oil is cleaned up. As shorelines get re-oiled, report oil sightings, particularly in areas that are hard to see from flyovers or motor boats, to 415-398-9617. Report oiled or hurt wildlife to 415-701-2311.

Local boaters who wash bunker fuel off their recreational boats or other watercraft may contribute to the spread of toxins throughout the Bay. Even in small amounts, the oil can be toxic to aquatic life, and cleaning solvents may also contain chemicals and other pollutants that can harm the environment. San Francisco Baykeeper, a local environmental watchdog group, has developed a guide to green cleaning (see below) and has mobilized volunteers to walk the docks to spread the word to marinas and boaters in the aftermath of the Cosco Busan spill. To file a claim for oiled property, call 866-442-9650.

San Francisco Oiled Boat Clean Up Tips
After the Cosco Busan oil spill on November 7, many boaters have asked us how to manage oil on their boats in an environmentally sound way.  Oil can be toxic to aquatic life – even in small amounts – and cleaning solvents also contain chemicals and other pollutants that can harm the environment.  Our goal is to help you keep the oil and solvents out of the water – here’s our guide to green cleaning in the aftermath of the Cosco Busan spill.

  • Use your boat less. The elimination of boat traffic helps to reduce the spread of oil and will minimize your boat’s exposure. Call your marina for specific information about your facility.
  • Report oil in, or heading toward, your marina.  Contact your harbormaster.  If you have a private dock, call 985-781-0804 to reach the cleanup company contracted by the Cosco Busan owners who can bring equipment to remove it.
  • Protect your financial rights. The bunker fuel from the spill can permanently stain fiberglass hulls.  Call your insurance company as soon as your boat is in contact with the oil.  Uninsured boaters can call 866-442-9650 to file a claim.

If your boat gets oiled:

  • Do NOT use soap to remove oil.  Soaps emulsify oil and spread toxic pollutants into the water.  Adding soaps, detergent, or any other dispersing agent to an oil sheen is also against the law.
  • Take your boat to a boat yard for cleaning. Hauling out your boat will prevent damage, and the costs may be reimbursed by the responsible party. The boat yard will capture all the wastewater and dispose of it properly.  One boat yard that does this is Keefe Kaplan Maritime, Inc., who can be reached at 510-235-5564.
  • Use and properly dispose of oil-only absorbent pads.  If you must remove oil from your boat while it is in the water, use an oil-only absorbent pad that you can pick up from most fuel docks. Ask your marina where to properly dispose of used oil absorbents, call 800-CLEANUP (253-2687), or visit www.earth911.org to find local hazardous waste collection centers.
  • Avoid direct skin contact with oil by wearing Nitrile gloves (not latex gloves).  If you get oil on your skin, wash it off immediately with soap and water.

Please work with your marina, yacht club operator or harbormaster for updates and more specific information.