Drills, baby, drills

Pub date May 18, 2010
WriterRebecca Bowe


The disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico should be viewed as a wakeup call for the San Francisco Bay Area, Pacific Environment’s Jackie Dragon noted at a May 11 forum on oil spill preparedness and prevention.

The forum was planned even before the April 20 explosion of BP’s rig, triggering the onset of an out-of-control oil spill that has continued to wreak havoc in the Gulf for nearly a month. Up to 100,000 barrels of oil a day could be gushing from undersea pipeline, according to the highest estimates, which would dwarf the damage caused by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.

Investigative reports in the New York Times in the wake of the spill revealed that the Minerals Management Service (MMS) had issued deep water drilling permits in the Gulf without obtaining permits from a federal agency that assesses threats to endangered species — in violation of federal law — and that MMS routinely overruled staff biologists’ safety concerns. The reports suggest the failure of not only a mechanical device, but an entire regulatory system, in which oil company interests appeared to take precedent over public safety and environmental concerns.

Here in California, environmentalists breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger withdrew his support for Tranquillon Ridge, a controversial offshore oil drilling project planned off the coast of Santa Barbara. Yet the governor’s change of heart doesn’t safeguard California’s coastal territories from a spill. Millions of gallons of oil are transported in and out of the ports every year, and refinery infrastructure dots the coastline.

“It’s all about the initial timeframe,” noted Fred Felleman, an environmental consultant who spoke at the forum. Shaken by BP’s colossal blunder and wary of the string of failures that led up to last year’s Dubai Star oil spill, environmental groups are now pushing for legislation they hope will slash response time by requiring ships to deploy protective boom before pumping fuel, so potential spills could be sopped up immediately.

The precaution would do little to remedy a major spill, however, and it’s just a small piece of a wider response puzzle that entails coordination among volunteers, community groups, and multilevel government agencies to accomplish everything from containing the slick, to cleaning beaches, to caring for impacted wildlife.

Although established protocols and a chain of command are in place for responding to oil spills, several speakers at the forum noted that vigilance tends to wane between these catastrophes. The environmental devastation in the Gulf could prove to be a catalyst for investing more energy and resources into safeguarding against the worst.



Fortunately, the Bay Area has been spared from the sort of devastating blow that is blackening Gulf of Mexico waters, crippling fisheries, and sending tar balls ashore. However, the bay has weathered two comparatively minor oil spills in the last three years, which could be viewed as learning experiences for a bigger incident.

The Cosco Busan spill occurred in late 2007, when a cargo ship hit the Bay Bridge under foggy conditions and released 58,020 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay. According to a detailed account of the incident response, the vessel collided with the Bay Bridge at 8:30 a.m., and the fuel leaked out in a matter of minutes. Two hours later, the estimated amount spilled was reported at 10 barrels (420 gallons), and hours passed before the actual quantity was revealed. The state official who determined how much had leaked arrived at Yerba Buena Island at 9:45 a.m. to perform an assessment but had to wait more than two hours to be transported to the ship.

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.



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.

The official investigation report hasn’t been released, but U.S. Coast Guard Captain Paul Gugg noted that a faulty valve was to blame. Some 2,000 gallons of oil overflowed, but went unnoticed until someone aboard a tugboat pointed it out, according to Gugg’s account. Most of the oily mess was contained on board, but between 400 and 800 gallons spilled over the port side, instantly creating a toxic plume.

“This particular vessel is equipped with high-level alarms, and high high-level alarms, which did not activate,” Gugg noted.

Under state regulations, vessels are required to respond to spills by deploying 600 feet of boom within 30 minutes, and 600 more feet more within one hour. In the case of the Dubai Star, that didn’t happen, a report released by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership noted. Instead, the slick was allowed to spread.

Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced AB 234 to establish a requirement for vessels to deploy boom before beginning a fuel transfer, so that a spill could be contained without losing time. The state of Washington has a similar law, noted legislative aid Paige Brokaw, “and their current conditions are pretty similar to our current conditions.” Booming is only effective at slower currents, which makes things difficult since a fuel transfer can take more than eight hours, and currents may shift in that time.

Huffman’s office received a letter of opposition to the bill from OSPR. “Booming is a good method to contain a spill, but it’s not a foolproof method,” said Singleton, the OSPR spokesperson. “To use that one method, it just may or may not work in certain circumstances.” Nonetheless, proponents of the bill say that even partial oil containment in higher currents is better than having no precautionary measures at all.

While the lessons of the past can be instructive, forum participants noted that continuous coordination, communication, and vigilance is the surest path to being able to respond if another oil spill occurs in the Bay Area. Grader, meanwhile, said he knew the best solution of all. “The ultimate prevention,” he said, “is basically getting off our oil addiction.”