Ten years ago, on November 7, 2007, the Cosco Busan container ship ran into the Bay Bridge and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Initially, the amount spilled was vastly underestimated, so response equipment was slow to arrive at the scene, and the oil spread. Boaters and beachgoers started noticing oil in other parts of the Bay. Residents across the Bay Area were stunned when dramatic images of struggling wildlife and blackened beaches began to emerge.
Ultimately, more than 6,500 birds died from the oil. Much of the year’s herring eggs and many small creatures at the base of the Bay’s food chain were also killed. Fifty oiled beaches and shoreline parks were closed to the public, some for longer than a month.
The Cosco Busan oil spill was a stark lesson in the need to improve oil spill response for San Francisco Bay. Baykeeper took a lead role in helping to assess the aftermath of the Cosco Busan accident, helping identify the most critical changes needed in spill response planning.
First, it was clear that federal and state officials needed to establish better communications with local agencies responsible for shoreline cities and parks, who initially weren’t included in the response effort--but could have deployed protective booms to keep oil off of the local shorelines.
Baykeeper also advocated for future spill response to be concentrated on the most sensitive sites around San Francisco Bay. We urged response officials to prioritize protecting the Bay’s fragile wetlands, habitat for endangered species, and herring spawning locations, as well as publicly accessible shoreline.
We pressed spill response officials to share information more quickly with local leaders and residents who had been suddenly surprised to witness an environmental catastrophe unfolding in the Bay. Hundreds of reports of oil around the Bay poured into Baykeeper’s office phones and pollution hotline.
And Baykeeper recommended that response efforts better incorporate local residents. Thousands showed up on beaches and at information sessions in the days following the spill, anxious to help. Unfortunately, the oil was too toxic to allow unequipped volunteers to handle it. It took more than a week for response officials to find safe tasks and train and equip residents to help with response efforts.
Most importantly, Baykeeper helped institute critical improvements to how the Bay Area plans for oil spills. We took part in the Coast Guard’s post-spill review process with the response agencies, then successfully supported and helped write nine major new state oil spill laws. The laws mandated important changes, including improved coordination between agencies, prioritization of sensitive sites, better support for oiled wildlife care, and increased funding for oil spill response.
And in the decade since, Baykeeper has continued to formally collaborate with government oil spill response agencies to prevent other oil disasters like this. We hold a seat on the Office of Spill Prevention and Response Technical Advisory Committee and an appointment on the San Francisco Bay Harbor Safety Committee. That means Baykeeper staff regularly meet with Coast Guard officers, state oil spill response officials, oiled wildlife responders, and shoreline city and park staff. Together we take a collaborative approach to ensure that when another spill happens in the Bay, response efforts will be better communicated, coordinated, and effective.
Of course, oil spill response and cleanup technology is not perfect. Oil spilled in moving water like the Bay is difficult to contain and remove, especially if it is heavier sinking oil. The best way to make the Bay safer is to prevent oil spills from happening. That’s why Baykeeper and our partner community and environmental groups oppose the oil industry’s current push to expand oil refining around the Bay.
These expansions would dramatically increase the risk of oil spills. Together, we stopped a new oil storage facility proposed for Pittsburg and an expansion of the rail yard proposed by the Valero oil refinery in Benicia.
Now, we’re advocating to prevent Phillips 66 from increasing the number of oil tankers carrying heavy crude oil across the Bay to its refinery in Rodeo—from 59 to 135 tankers per year.
Baykeeper remains determined that the Bay’s wildlife and shorelines will have the strongest protections to reduce the risk of oil spills and the most effective cleanup possible if spills occur.
More on the Cosco Busan Oil Spill
How the Cosco Busan Spill Unfolded
The disaster happened when a 900-foot container ship, the Cosco Busan, side-swiped a Bay Bridge tower, gashing open two of the ship’s fuel tanks. The damage was compounded because the ship initially reported that only 400 gallons had spilled. But the tide soon washed an unexpectedly long plume of thick, floating oil south of the bridge. When the tide turned, the oil surged out the Golden Gate and blackened Baker Beach, Ocean Beach, Muir Beach, Rodeo Lagoon, and more coastline north and south. Flood tide washed oil back into the Bay, coating the shorelines of Alcatraz, Angel Island, Richardson Bay and East Bay.
The response by government agencies tasked with oil spill cleanup was uncoordinated and inadequate. Skimmers, specialized equipment used to remove oil from the water’s surface, were not deployed until most of the oil was too dispersed to be cleaned up. Many local agencies, city and park officials, and thousands of would-be volunteers wanted to help prevent damage to sensitive shorelines. But they were left out of the response efforts.
More than 6,500 birds died, with two species, Western grebes and surf scoters, hit especially hard. Getting coated with oil destroys a bird’s natural waterproofing. Instinctively, they preen their feathers to restore their waterproofing, in the process ingesting oil, which can poison them.
Much of the year’s herring eggs and many small creatures at the base of the Bay’s food chain were also killed. Fifty oiled beaches and shoreline parks were closed to the public, some for longer than a month.
Additional Improvements Since the Cosco Busan Oil Spill
Better oil spill prevention measures have been put in place for ship traffic on the Bay. An additional maneuvering area in the Bay and a satellite-based tracking system for large ships have been implemented to prevent collisions between large ships, or between ships and structures such as bridge piers. Oil spill prevention staff members have been added at Bay Area ports to reduce accidents when ships are taking on fuel. State government more closely oversees the bar pilots who steer large ships in and out the Golden Gate and through the Bay.
The owners of the Cosco Busan were required to pay heavy fines for the damage the accident caused. $32 million of these funds were earmarked for projects to restore natural resources and compensate for lost recreation. Projects have included restoring habitat for birds, harbor seals, native vegetation and native oysters on an island in Richardson Bay, and improvements to trails and facilities at Muir Beach. Baykeeper also successfully advocated for some of these funds to be used to remove abandoned boats, a significant source of toxic pollution in San Francisco Bay. During 2013-14, more than 40 polluting abandoned boats were removed from the Oakland Estuary.
Photo of grebe by Joan Robins