The BP oil drilling rig explosion and ongoing crude oil gusher into the Gulf of Mexico remind us, yet again, of the enormous risk posed to estuary and marine ecosystems from these activities. Oil spills have occurred with regularity in and around San Francisco Bay, though we have been spared, so far, a massive discharge on par with either the BP or Exxon Valdez calamities. Recent significant spills occurred in San Francisco Bay in 1971, 1986, 1988, 1996, 2007 and 2009. Ship collisions occur with even greater frequency. Spills have not resulted from all collisions only because of the lucky coincidence that cargo holds were empty. The Shell oil spill of 1998 was among the largest in the Bay at 400,000 gallons. The 2007 collision of the Cosco Busan with the Oakland Bay Bridge dumped 58,000 gallons into the Bay. By contrast, the Exxon Valdez spill was almost 11 million gallons, while the estimate of the BP calamity has been increased to at least 22 million and as much as 50 million gallons.
In the aftermath of the Exxon Valdes and, locally, of the Shell Oil spill, studies were commissioned and, ultimately, federal and state legislation was enacted to address these ecological disasters. Among other things, it was concluded that cleanup technology was largely ineffectual. It was unlikely, the studies declared, that much more than 20% of spilled oil could be recovered. Using [then] current technologies, higher levels of recovery could only be hoped for under ideal weather and water conditions. Significant chop from winds renders cleanup technologies almost totally ineffective.
Like Throwing Diapers on the Bay
Those 1988 technologies were the same tools that were used to respond to the Cosco Busan spill in 2007 and are those being used to respond to the BP blowout in the Gulf. Speaking at a press conference after the Cosco Busan spill, Congressman George Miller observed that the cleanup strategy appeared to be to,“…throw diapers on the Bay.” He recognized that cleanup technology was antiquated. Relying on it is like organizing a bucket brigade to extinguish a blazing TransAmerica Pyramid—it is as futile as it is inexcusable.
Recovery levels from the Cosco Busan spill rose to an exceptionally successful 30% level primarily because “ideal” conditions existed. Flat seas and light winds prevailed. Even under those circumstances thousands of birds died as a result of being soiled by oil. The seventy percent of the spill that was not recovered found its way into the small spaces of the estuary ecosystem, settling to the bottom, seeping into beach sands, and being siphoned into clams, oysters, mussels and other filter-feeding invertebrates. Long-term studies of Prince William Sound, site of the Exxon Valdez spill, and similar sites around the globe are now showing that, even after twenty years, wildlife population numbers have still not recovered. This includes both fish and seabird communities.
Were a spill of comparable magnitude to occur in the enclosed estuary that we call San Francisco Bay, it would, in all probability, result in the permanent extinction of several species, including California clapper rail, salt marsh harvest mouse, salt marsh yellowthroat, coho salmon and multiple additional fish and bird species. The Dungeness crab and herring commercial fisheries could be lost indefinitely. It is doubtful that full recovery could occur in less than fifty years, if you could consider any recovery that includes the extinction of several species “full.”
As things now stand, industries that use San Francisco Bay for commercial purposes have little incentive to reduce the incidence of spills or to improve recovery effectiveness. Penalties for spills are relatively low, settlements are reached with individual shippers and paid for by insurance policies, and if a particular shipper is unable to survive, others are there to capture the business. Clean-up technology is pitiful and oil companies are not required even to conduct research into improved methods. This is clearly a serious failure of government.
Setting a Logical Course of Action
Until our country completes its critical task of shifting our heavy reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy, the logical course of action for government to take is to require shipping companies, oil refineries, and other industries posing the risk of spills to establish a research and development program that would result in vastly improved spill prevention and remediation.
Following earlier oil spills, the government should have established a numerical standard for prevention and remediation, and then set a schedule by which industry would be required to meet it. For instance, a standard of 90% recovery of spilled oil could have been set, with prorated financial penalties for failure to reach the goal. Financial penalties should have been set high enough to provide the industry with meaningful incentive to invest in prevention.
In 2006 the state of California adopted just such standards to reduce the introduction of invasive species contained in ship ballast water. The Legislature adopted the strongest numeric standards in the world for levels of invasive organisms in ballast water discharged into state waters: zero detectable viable organisms. It enacted this stringent legislation because it recognized the enormous damage that invasive species can inflict upon both California’s aquatic ecosystem and its economy. It placed the responsibility squarely on the shipping industry to develop suitable technologies, and established a schedule for compliance.
Exactly the same approach should be taken regarding oil and other chemical spills. Yet, twenty-two years after one of the largest oil spills to have ever occurred in the Bay, no such regulatory requirements exist.
The state should set strict numerical standards for spills and cleanup, (I suggest “Zero Tolerance” for spills and 100% recovery and remediation) and then adopt a schedule for industry compliance. The standards should apply not merely to the oil tanker industry, but to all industries that conduct commerce upon San Francisco Bay that pose a risk of spill. That would include, at a minimum, the entire shipping industry, regardless of cargo, the oil industry, and other relevant chemical industries.
We have dodged the bullet in San Francisco Bay only by dint of fate. It is long past time to prepare for the inevitable massive Bay oil spill.
Related Note: The Bay Institute's affiliate, Aquarium of the Bay, is a member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA). AZA has created an informative web page of links to help the public better understand the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. Click here for details.