Lessons from the Latest Spill

Pres. Nixon visits Santa Barbara beach
President Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara in 1969 prompted stronger federal environmental protections. Photo credit: National Archives

The images from 1969 and 1971 are still fresh in my mind.  When the massive oil spill from offshore rigs coated Santa Barbara beaches and wildlife in 1969, I was just seven years old, but I remember the TV and newspaper photos of the oiled birds and seals.  People flocked to the beaches, desperately trying to soak up the oil by tossing hay into the water and raking it ashore. 

Just two years later, two Standard Oil tankers collided near the entrance to San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil, and those scenes were repeated again at Ocean Beach, Crissy Field and the Marin Headlands. For me and a whole generation, these were local events that helped shape our awareness of the environment, its fragility, and how quickly it could be destroyed.

They clearly shaped the Californian in the White House, too.  Richard Nixon’s visit to the oiled beaches of Santa Barbara prompted the first serious talk of bans on offshore drilling, and his Administration soon created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed national air and water protection laws.

We came to realize that with oil spills in the bay or ocean, cleanup is nearly impossible, so prevention is essential.  Last week, when more than 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean near Santa Barbara, they came not from a tanker collision or an offshore drilling rig, but from a pipeline on land that flowed to the coast.

We have those pipelines here in the Bay Area, and they pose the same threat to our Bay. The same company that owns the ruptured pipeline in Santa Barbara—Plains All American Pipeline—owns facilities in the Bay Area. And they’ve been cited for 175 federal safety and maintenance violations since 2006. 

In 2004, a Kinder-Morgan pipeline spilled 60,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the Suisun Marsh, a sensitive wildlife area just upstream from the Carquinez Strait near Fairfield.  The buried pipeline burst just 3 feet below the surface, and pipeline operators waited nearly a day before notifying state authorities.

In 1988, more than 400,000 gallons of oil leaked from a tank at Shell’s Martinez refinery when a drain valve was mistakenly left open, killing hundreds of birds and mammals.

Over the years, Save The Bay has advocated for better prevention to protect San Francisco Bay and its wildlife from the ravages of oil spills. 

When the Cosco Busan sideswiped one of the Bay Bridge towers in heavy fog, and spilled more than 50,000 of bunker oil into the Bay in 2007, we supported a package of legislation to improve oil spill prevention and response, and investigations to tighten safety procedures for ship navigation and regulation of bar pilots who guide ships in and out of the Bay.  But just last year, reports revealed a crucial ship navigation beacon on the Bay Bridge – designed to prevent a repeat of the Cosco Busan – was not operational.  It took CalTrans months to complete a permanent fix.

And we’ve warned about the increase in trains carrying Bakken crude oil on the Bay Area’s rail lines, posing threats to both populous communities and the Bay’s shoreline.  Save The Bay has supported legislation to increase oversight, notification, safety requirements, and funding for emergency response for the many ways oil threatens San Francisco Bay fish and wildlife.

In response to last January’s spill of “Mystery Goo” near Alameda that killed and damaged hundreds of birds, Save The Bay endorsed State Senate Bill 718 by Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock to fund state response to non-petroleum spills in the Bay. The bill establishes that “the state’s top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”

Last week’s Santa Barbara oil spill provides another wake-up call to reduce our dependence on oil and improve safety protections from oil accidents for our natural resources and the communities where we live.

Weekly Round-up: December 6, 2013

Check out this week’s Weekly Roundup for breaking news affecting San Francisco Bay

San Jose Mercury News 11/30/13
San Francisco Bay waters are becoming clearer, but that may mean threats from algae growth
San Francisco Bay is becoming clearer.
Decades of tidal action have finally washed away most of the mess created 150 years ago by Gold Rush miners who blasted apart hillsides in the Sierra Nevada. The result was millions of tons of mud, gravel and sand that made its way downriver and ended up in the bay, clouding its waters and coating the bottom with a level of silt up to 3 feet thick.
Most of the silt, scientists say, has now moved out to the ocean.
Read more>>

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San Jose Mercury News 12/02/13
Cosco Busan’s ship’s pilot won’t get license back
Capt. John Cota, who crashed the Cosco Busan cargo ship into the Bay Bridge in 2007, causing the worst oil spill in San Francisco Bay in two decades, has lost his battle to restart his sailing career.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White dismissed Cota’s lawsuit against the Coast Guard, rejecting his attempt to force the Coast Guard to return his mariner’s license so he can sail again.
Read more>>

SF Gate 12/02/13
River otter spotted in Richmond marina
Leo Rice, a 57-year-old flight attendant for Virgin America, was on his daily constitutional Monday in Richmond’s Marina Bay when he spotted an eager river otter munching a fish in the clear bay water.
“I was just out there doing a walk and this little guy popped up and I was like WHAT?!,” Rice said. “He was not very shy at all and it was like he was not even bothered I was there.”
Rice snapped about 30 photos and took a video of the otter paddling and trying to gulp down a fish. Rice said he’s been walking Marina Bay since 2009 and has never before spotted an otter.
Read more>>

Contra Costa Times 12/01/13
Bay Bridge park would offer a new gateway to the East Bay shoreline
Forget about a giant Ferris wheel or gondola car ride in the emerging plan for a big new park by the Bay Bridge — a new gateway to the East Bay and its shoreline.
Those ride suggestions have been cut out, but still in the running for the park are a fishing pier, concert meadow, a zip line, rock climbing wall, tide pool viewing areas, kayak and sail board launch sites, a boardwalk, sandy beaches and picnic tables.
Read more>>

Petaluma 360 11/29/13
Plastic bag ban debate continues
Petaluma is on the verge of throwing out the use of plastic carryout bags by grocers and retailers for good.
City Manager John Brown said the City Council will have two options before them at Monday’s meeting: join the county’s plastic ban or draft legislation specific to Petaluma that outlaws plastic bags.
“There are some cities that have said they want to do it themselves, and other cities that said they want the county to handle it for them,” said Brown. “Now it’s the council’s time to decide.”
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San Jose Mercury News 12/02/13
Birding adventures in northern California
If December’s constant diet of shopping, eating, shopping, football and shopping puts you in a Scroogey kind of mood, maybe it’s time for a breath of fresh air.
In Northern California, December is the season not just for consumer frenzy, but for epic wildlife shows. The midwinter phenomenon of winged migration is in full feather at refuges around the region, and by all accounts, the avian action is some of the most impressive in the nation.
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Marin Independent Journal 12/03/13
Marin gets state cash to look at sea level rise
Marin County will use a $200,000 grant to look at how it can prevent businesses, homes and highways from being inundated by a rising sea over the next several decades.
The California Ocean Protection Council is providing the money to Collaborating on Sea-Level: Marin Adaptation Response Team, known as C-SMART. The program, overseen by the Marin County Community Development Agency, is trying to get ahead of sea level rise.
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