One year after BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill and 3½ years after the destructive Cosco Busan oil spill in San Francisco Bay, local, state and federal officials say they are better prepared to respond to a major oil spill.
The November 2007 accident, in which a container ship dumped 55,000 gallons of oil after ramming into the Bay Bridge, was marked by major failures in communication and lack of coordination. Among the biggest problems was a major miscalculation of the spill’s size, which resulted in a slower emergency response than was needed.
Local officials were not informed of the spill for hours, and once the incident occurred, volunteers swarmed local beaches to help with the cleanup, but they were turned away because there was no plan for how to use the labor.
However, many of those problems have been resolved. An analysis of the U.S. Coast Guard’s response contains some 190 suggestions for improvements, and Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gus Bannan said most have been “enacted in some way, shape or form.”
Local governments have been promised notice in case of a spill, and emergency responders have been provided with cleanup gear. The Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game have created new protocols for working with local emergency responders so there’s less confusion about who’s doing what.
Volunteers would not be turned away if a spill happened today, Fish and Game spokeswoman Carol Singleton said. Instead, they would be put to work immediately doing projects appropriate for their training level.
Singleton said state budget woes have not left her department untouched, and her agency’s Oil Spill Prevention and Response division is being tasked with more work without extra resources. However, she said the agency has continued to staff for emergencies and will not be short personnel the next time a disaster occurs.
San Francisco Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self was one of the loudest critics of the response, and she has been closely involved in planning for the future. She said a lot of progress has been made.
Self said she was disappointed that more of the lessons learned locally were not heeded in the Coast Guard’s response to the BP disaster. For example, volunteers and experts were not used to their full capacity, despite that being one of the clear lessons learned from the Cosco Busan incident.
And she said there’s still a lot to be done locally. For example, there has been no prioritization of which environmentally sensitive areas should be saved first. And it’s not clear what the role of nongovernment experts should be in a response.
“I’ve spent well over 100 hours receiving oil-spill-specific training, and it’s still not resolved whether I could be pulled into a response because I’m not a government employee,” Self said. “There’s still a lot that needs to be done.”
The morning the Cosco Busan container ship hit the Bay Bridge, the fog seemed as thick as oatmeal. So thick, in fact, that today the boat would not be allowed to leave port.
The Coast Guard now prohibits ships from setting sail when visibility is less than a half-mile.
The National Weather Service is tasked with issuing such fog advisories, but it needs good information. The agency lacks fog sensors in San Francisco Bay and must rely on reports from mariners, who usually guess, or local airports, which use visibility sensors to direct air traffic, meteorologist Tom Evans said.
But if that information doesn’t make it to the National Weather Service, no advisory goes out and ships can continue to leave port.
That may change if the National Weather Service and the Coast Guard can find funds to outfit the Bay with seven fog sensors. Such sensors measure particulates in the air, then deduct the surrounding visibility. They are used in other dense-fog areas, such as the Gulf Coast, Rhode Island, the Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes.
But funding is elusive, Evans said. The sensors cost about $27,000 each, plus an additional $15,000 to power.
“The National Weather Service would not be able to come up with that money, so we’re looking for other sources of funding,” he said.
Evans said they might have to compromise on the number of sensors.
“Seven, I think, is a very lofty goal,” he said.
In 2007, biologists were already worried about the Bay’s diminishing herring population. Their concerns became despair after the Cosco Busan oil spill caused herring roe to expire unhatched by the millions near the shore or to hatch into deformed larvae.
Three years later, biologists are seeing a rebound. For the first time since before the spill, the Bay herring population has surged to a normal level.
“We were very lucky that it did not oil more of the Bay,” said biologist John Mello, who’s the manager of California’s Pacific herring fishery.
He said while the oil slick decimated some herring spawning areas, other prime spots were protected, and those herring are now coming back and spawning en masse.
“Instead of having a good-year class, we could have had a collapse,” Mello said.