Broken Shipping Beacon Threatens the Bay

UPDATE – Feb 17, 2015

We received word late this morning that Caltrans has received and installed a replacement beacon from the manufacturer, over two weeks after the San Jose Mercury News article which brought this issue to the region’s attention.  According to a Caltrans email, “The Coast Guard has confirmed that the [radar beacon] is operating normally.”  — Patrick Band, Campaign Manager

A radar beacon slung below the western span of the Bay Bridge, which helps guide oil tankers and other ships safely between the bridge’s towers, is broken.  It’s been that way since before the Christmas holiday. And Caltrans, the agency responsible for keeping the beacon in working order, does not appear to have a timeline for when this critical element of the Bay’s marine safety system will be fixed.

Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc.  For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.
Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc. For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for oil tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.

This disturbing story broke late last week, thanks to reporting by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News.  You can read his full article online here.

When the U.S. Coast Guard notified Caltrans of the inoperative beacon in mid-December, work crews deployed a backup beacon. It wasn’t working right either, nor was the next one, or the next.  As of last week, Coast Guard records listed the beacon as “inoperable.”

Meanwhile, ships continue to pass under the Bay Bridge, putting their crews, cargo, and the Bay itself at risk.

Sadly, this is in no way a one-time technology glitch. When the tanker ship Overseas Reymar struck one of the bridge towers in January of 2013, a key beacon was out, influencing the pilot’s decision to change course at the last minute.  What could have been a Bay-wide catastrophe on the scale of the Cosco Busan wreck in 2007 was avoided purely by chance, because the tanker was not carrying oil at the time.

We’ve been shown repeatedly that containing spills once they occur is nearly impossible, and the repercussions of environmental damage can be felt for decades.  Preventing spills from occurring is the most responsible course of action.  Caltrans must ensure that critical marine navigation aids like the Bay Bridge beacons are fixed immediately, and the U.S. Coast Guard should evaluate the risks associated with allowing shipping traffic to continue under the bridge during periods of poor visibility if a beacon is out of service.

Judge Rejects Elements of Newark’s plans to pave over Bay wetlands

Should a bayside city work to help expand the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge, restoring more than 550 acres of Bay wetlands and habitat? Or should they forever destroy that opportunity by filling in the area with an 18-hole golf course and nearly 500 single family houses?

That’s the question we posed over a year ago, when the City of Newark was producing an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the ecologically critical “Area 4,” one of the largest areas of restorable, undeveloped baylands in the South Bay.

area-4-landscape-shot
The proposed development of “Area 4” in Newark. Decades ago, this area was healthy tidal marsh, and could be again. But the City of Newark is continuing plans to pave Area 4 and build hundreds of houses and an 18-hole golf course. Photo Credit: Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge.

Last month, thanks to years of hard work by the Citizens Committee to Complete the Refuge and its lawsuit challenging the City’s environmental analysis, Alameda Superior Court Judge Evelio Grillo found that the City of Newark failed to adequately describe project impacts.

In his ruling, Judge Grillo called the omission of certain impacts a “material deficiency” of the EIR.

“The public cannot participate meaningfully in the environmental evaluation unless the city discloses clearly what aspects of the evaluation the city is intending to address in full.”

In the coming months, the City of Newark will release a revised EIR, and the fight to prevent these historic Baylands from being developed will continue.  We want to thank the Citizens Committee for its continued leadership, as well as the thousands of Bay Area residents and Save The Bay members who took time to submit comments on the project.

Until then, here is a reminder of the reasons why “Area 4” is so special, and why your ongoing support of this and other fights to prevent development in the Bay are so important:

  • The 1999 Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project, the scientific roadmap for the restoration of the Bay shoreline, identifies Area 4 as being uniquely situated for the restoration of both tidal marsh and adjacent upland transition zones, two habitats critical to the health of the Bay
  • Area 4 is host to approximately a dozen special status species –including the endangered Salt Marsh Harvest Mouse – and it is directly adjacent to Mowry Slough, a primary breeding ground for San Francisco Bay harbor seals
  • The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board says “large expanses of undeveloped uplands immediately adjacent to tidal sloughs are extremely rare in the south and central San Francisco Bay” and “Area 4 represents a rare opportunity to … provide an area for tidal marsh species to move up slope in response to sea level rise”
  • Similarly, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says “this wetland is an integral component of the San Francisco Bay ecosystem,” and “critically important to waterfowl and shorebirds.”

What #Stormageddon Means for the Bay

Stormwater pollution storm drains rain water drought
As much as recent rainstorms have been a boon for parched landscapes across California, there is a dark side to all the wet stuff – trash and other pollution that collects in gutters, and in many cases, ends up flowing directly to creeks, rivers, and the Bay. Photo by Patrick Band

Although last week’s storm wasn’t quite all it was hyped up to be, it was still an impressive showing from Mother Nature. Some of the worst flooding occurred in the North Bay town of Healdsburg, where the Russian River jumped from a bucolic 700 cubic feet per second to a raging 40,000 cubic feet per second. Nevertheless, the flooding – which inundated downtown businesses – wasn’t caused by the river jumping its banks (it didn’t), but rather by smaller creeks and detention ponds becoming inundated so quickly. With over 6 inches of rain falling within 12-14 hours, there simply wasn’t anywhere for the water to go.

With forecasts calling for a series of smaller storms in coming days, it’s worth recapping what all the wet stuff means for California and the Bay in particular.

Trash

You’ve probably heard of First Flush – just as early season storms make roads treacherous because of all the accumulated oil and grime, big rains wash all of the plastic wrappers, cigarette butts, and random trash that accumulate in our urban environment and carry them in to the storm water system. With an estimated 3 billion cigarette butts littered around the Bay each year, that’s a whole lot of toxic trash!

We’ll be keeping an eye out during this weekend’s King Tides to see what washes up on the shores, and share out any interesting finds.

Water Supply

Despite the estimated 10 trillion gallons of water that fell across the state last week, most major reservoirs are barely above the half-way mark for the year. The state’s three largest reservoirs – Shasta, Oroville, and Trinity – are all below 55% of average storage for the year, and at roughly 30% of total capacity.

Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California and well-regarded expert on climate and water issues put it well when speaking with KQED earlier in the week:

“Thursday it’ll rain, and people will say, ‘Oh, I’m very excited,’ and Saturday it’ll rain, and ‘Oh, drought’s over.’ Not even close. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought.”

Sediment

It goes by all sorts of names – mud, silt, sand, gunk, soil, dirt. It’s both a bane to water quality that can ultimately lead to massive die-offs of species, and a necessary element to systems like the Bay where sediment accumulates along the shoreline and helps wetlands keep up with rising tides.

While the short-term increase in sediment may not make news in the Bay Area, statewide, there are some surprising results. Just an hour or so away in the Bay Delta, sediment loads are forcing pumping reductions of water to Central Valley farmers and Southern California. Turns out, the endangered Delta Smelt really enjoy muddy water, because it provides them a level of protection against predators. So paradoxically, Delta pump operators are cutting back at the exact time when flows are higher than they’ve been for years.

That spells good news for the Delta Smelt, and for the Bay.

Mixed Success for Conservation Measures

Tuesday was a big day for the environment.

Yet despite over $18 billion in new funding for conservation efforts being approved by voters across the United States, this week’s election was a tangible reminder that the success of environmental issues at the ballot box is not just about who spends the most money, sends out the shiniest mailers, or runs the dirtiest TV ads.  The “ground game” of making calls, knocking on doors and enticing supporters to the polls, as well as being smart about how ballot measures are crafted and which elections they’re on – these things matter just as much, if not more.

We’ve pulled together a rundown of the biggest wins and losses for environmentalists this November, in the hopes of learning some lessons about how Save The Bay and all of our fellow advocates around the Bay can be more effective in future elections.

Measure Q – Santa Clara County Open Space

Close doesn’t begin to describe the 706 vote margin by which Measure Q is passing in Santa Clara County.  Following the razor-thin victory of the Mid Peninsula Open Space District’s Measure AA this past June, advocates were hopeful that a second Bay Area conservation measure could pass in 2014.  If late ballots continue to trend as they have been, Measure Q will generate over $120 million for parks, open space, and public access in Santa Clara County.

 Measure Q received endorsements from environmental groups (including Save The Bay), South Bay elected officials, community leaders and news outlets including the Mercury News.  Keep your fingers crossed on this one, and remember that getting the 2/3 majority required for tax measures is never easy.

UPDATE:  We’re super excited that Measure Q has passed with 67.87% of the vote!

 Prop 1 – California Water Bond

After years of false starts and delays by the legislature, California voters overwhelmingly approved a new statewide water bond last night.  Approval means environmentalists must now focus on how the $7.5 billion in new funding is spent.  Here in the Bay Area, we’re focused on advocating for a significant portion of the $385 million allocated to two state agencies to be directed to wetland restoration throughout the Bay, including the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, the largest such effort on the West Coast.

 Measure J – San Benito County

One of two successful county level measures on the ballot to ban fracking in California (a measure in Mendocino County also passed). Measure J was one of the most expensive campaigns per vote cast in one of California’s least populated counties.  Opponents dumped as much as $1.8 million for a paltry 3,733 votes as of election night.  That’s a whopping $482 per No vote cast.  A similar measure in Santa Barbara, the only county of the three that currently has oil extraction, fell short with only 37% of the vote.

 Measure P – Los Angeles County

In LA County, Measure P would have established a flat-rate tax of $23 per parcel to fund restoration, conservation, and public access of parks and open space, replacing two funding measures that are set to expire soon.  The proposal was slammed by the LA Times editorial board for lax accountability and being rushed on to the ballot late this summer. Late last week, the Sierra Club’s Angeles chapter also announced opposition. Measure P was nearly 5 points short of the 66.7% threshold as of Wednesday afternoon.

 Across the Country

  • WIN – Larimer County, Colorado approved a ¼ cent sales tax renewal which will continue funding of open space conservation, parks, and protection of working farms and ranches
  • WIN – Voters in the Sunshine State overwhelmingly approved a tax on real estate filing fees that will generate $18 billion over 20 years for open space conservation, parks, and restoration. The constitutional amendment was opposed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, but received broad public support.
  • WIN – New Jersey voters approved a $2.1 billion corporate tax to fund farmland conservation and open space.
  • LOSS – Few states can rival the boom in oil and natural gas production more than North Dakota, where the aptly assigned Measure 5 would have directed 5% of the state’s oil severance tax to water quality, habitat, outdoor recreation and education. Voters rejected Measure 5 by a whopping 79%.

It’s heartening to see so many communities across California and the nation pushing forward creative ideas for funding habitat restoration, conservation, and natural resources protection. Win or lose, these campaigns are educating voters and making it even more likely that environmentalists will win at the ballot box next time.

They’re also showing proponents what elements voters need to see in order to approve ambitious campaigns like these.  When measures are placed on the ballot without sufficient public input, or lack accountability criteria or a clear assessment of the need, voters and editorial boards will continue to look upon them with skepticism.

Here in the Bay Area, we look forward to a possible regional Bay restoration measure appearing on the ballot in 2016, and will fight hard to bring additional funding to the Bay through the measures approved by voters this week.

Massive Wave of Oil About to Hit Bay Area

A massive wave of oil is about to hit the Bay Area.

The explosion of hydraulic fracturing and extraction of high-grade oil from the Bakken shale formation in the Dakotas and Canada have resulted in the biggest North American oil boom in a generation.  Over a half-million barrels of oil per day are being sucked from the ground and shipped to refineries across North America.  And increasingly, that oil is being transported via rail.

By 2016, the California Energy Commission estimates that 25% of statewide oil imports will be moved by rail. In the Bay Area, that represents as much as 7,750,000 gallons per day of refining capacity being met by trains carrying crude oil from the Midwest and Canada to local refineries in Benicia, Martinez, and Richmond. Along the way, they cross thousands of creeks, rivers, and other waterways that lead to the Bay, travel along railways directly adjacent to San Francisco Bay and pass through the hearts of big cities and small towns.

Last summer witnessed the most deadly train accident since the 1800’s, when a 74 car freight train carrying over 2 million gallons of Bakken crude oil derailed and exploded in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.  Forty-seven people died in the resulting fires, which leveled half of the town center.  Poor safety procedures, coupled with a mechanical issue and lack of adequate training for emergency personnel all contributed to the tragedy.

11168835315_49756b92e9_oHere in California, freight lines pass through downtown Truckee, Sacramento, Davis, Benicia, Richmond, Emeryville, and dozens more towns and cities.  Tens of thousands of residents live and work adjacent to these crude oil highways.

While the use of oil trains has skyrocketed, regulations to ensure safe transport of these dangerous materials has lagged behind, in large part because local and state agencies have virtually no jurisdiction over what is transported on tracks that cross over more than 7,000 rivers and streams in California alone.

[T]he volume of flammable materials transported by rail…and multiple recent serious and fatal accidents reflect substantial shortcomings in tank car design that create an unacceptable public risk
– Hon. Robert L. Sumwalt
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
 

Federal regulators with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) – have questioned the safety of the tanker cars used to transport hazardous substances since as far back as 1991.  Yet two decades later, oil companies and railroads are using the same outdated and unsafe tankers.  While the White House announced draft regulations for tank cars last week, even those new standards will take many more years to fully implement.

Meanwhile, our communities and San Francisco Bay will continue to be at risk.

In Sacramento, state lawmakers are working quickly to address the gaps caused by lagging federal regulation.  Notably, State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Los Angeles) has authored legislation (SB 1319) that would extend oil spill cleanup authority, and create grant programs to help fund prevention, planning, and response to land-based spills.

We support this bill and other efforts to increase oversight, notification, safety requirements, and funding for emergency response. These are critical first steps, without which we believe crude by rail presents an unacceptable threat to the people and wildlife of the Bay Area.

We’ll be posting more soon about how you can get involved in the fight to protect communities and our beautiful San Francisco Bay from the dangers of crude oil trains.