Goo Be Gone: Funding for Bay Area Spills

Mystery Goo bird release
International Bird Rescue released the last bird that recovered from Mystery Goo on April 15, 2015. SB 718 would provide funding for non-petroleum based spills in San Francisco Bay. Photo credit: Soren Hemmila/Marinscope Newspapers

The “Mystery Goo” spill early this January threw the Bay Area for a loop – wildlife, particularly birds, were drastically impacted, and as non-profits such as International Bird Rescue stretched their resources to their absolute limits, government remained hopelessly entangled in the specificities of legislation. When all was said and done, the financial burden of spill control and wildlife rehabilitation was entirely shouldered by local environmental non-profits, totaling over $150,000. Why? Because up until this point, there hasn’t been the funding mechanism in place for government to address non-petroleum based spills.

Senators Mark Leno and Loni Hancock stepped up to the plate to address this issue with Senate Bill 718. In the event that a spill is not petroleum based, the bill would allow the Office of Spill Prevention and Response to borrow up to $500,000 from the state’s oil spill prevention fund for wildlife rehabilitation and rescue. Senator Leno announced the bill in late March, stating, “California has a sophisticated oil spill response system, but in the unique event when a pollutant is unidentified, there is no clear funding mechanism for the cleanup. SB 718 clarifies 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.”

For the San Francisco Bay, this is extremely important legislation. San Francisco Bay is among the top three principal Pacific Coast gateways for U.S. cargo, with the Port of Oakland ranking as the fifth busiest container port in the nation – not to mention the many industries surrounding the Bay shoreline as well. These flourishing businesses are what keep the Bay Area vibrant and successful, but they also pose a huge risk daily for spills of all kinds into our beautiful Bay ecosystem. SB 718 will provide the legal how-to for wildlife protection in the event of another “mystery goo” tragedy, and we cannot risk another devastating spill without emergency resources in place.

The spill in January killed over 300 native birds, and even after weeks of testing, scientists were unable to identify the substance or the source of the spill. Over 500 birds were affected by the mysterious spill, and although International Bird Rescue was able to rehabilitate close to 150 animals, rescue efforts would have been more successful if a government plan was in place for addressing the spill.

SB 718 is a necessary safety net to preserve the Bay’s wildlife in case of the worst, and Save the Bay is proud to be one of the organizations supporting this legislation.

Don’t Want Mutant Fish in the Bay? Advocate for Tougher Drug Take-Back Programs in SF

Medication Pills Drug Take-back Programs Legislation Environment
Will San Francisco be the next county to pass sweeping drug take-back program legislation? Photo via Michael Chen on Flickr

As usual, Bay Area counties are ahead of the curve when it comes to making change. Back in 2012, Alameda County became the first in the nation to require pharmaceutical companies to pay for a drug take-back program, upping the ante for giant pharmaceutical companies to take responsibility for their products and raising awareness about the dangers of flushing unused medication into the Bay Area’s waterways.

It was a bold move, and now it looks like San Francisco County is eyeing similar legislation. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill, local Supervisor David Chiu recently began advocating for the funding of drug take-back programs to fall under the responsibility of pharmaceutical corporations. He told the San Francisco Chronicle this month that with this legislation, he seeks to prevent overdoses as well as to reduce contaminants in water – water that all eventually flows into our beloved Bay.

It turns out our wastewater treatment plants don’t have the technology to filter pharmaceutical chemicals ­ – they’re only designed to remove conventional pollutants such as solids and biodegradable materials. Yet for decades, drug companies and doctors told the public to flush unused and unwanted medications down the toilet. That sounds pretty gross in retrospect, but we all know hindsight is 20/20; recent studies have found traces of medications in surface water bodies across the country. The thought of seven-gill sharks and stingrays swimming around the Bay loaded with hormones, codeine and aspirin is pretty depressing, don’t you think?

You might be asking what all that medication does to aquatic life on a biological and physiological level. Scientists know for a fact that increased medications in surface water bodies have led to increased resistance to antibiotics, interference with growth and reproduction in sensitive organisms like fish and frogs – even at low levels of exposure. Effects of exposure can include off-kilter gender ratios (more females than males); the presence of both male and female reproductive organs on individual animals; plummeting birth rates; decreased fertility and growth; and lethargy and disorientation.

Let’s take a break from the icky details. Back in 2010, San Francisco County attempted to pass a law like Alameda County’s, but the plan buckled under industry pressure. The result was a slimmed-down, taxpayer-financed pilot program that consists of drop-off sites at nearly two dozen independent pharmacies and police stations. reports that the program has collected more than 37,000 pounds of medications over the last two years, and costs roughly $162,000 a year to operate – most of which is unreimbursed city staff time.

Fast forward to 2014, and San Francisco County is finally ready to take it a step further, inspired by Alameda County’s victory. If passed, Chiu’s law would establish drug drop-off sites at ALL retail and health care facilities that sell drugs. And, the cherry on top: the law would require drugmakers that make drugs sold in San Francisco to pay all administrative and operational costs of the program.

There are 7 million people living in the Bay Area. While not everyone is flushing medication down the toilet on the regular, our large population (which is booming, by the way), without any public awareness on the issue, still makes for a potentially huge amount of medication contaminants making their way into our waterways. That’s why successful legislation like this in San Francisco (which can lead to a domino effect around California, followed by statewide legislation – fingers crossed!) could be a boon to not only our drinking water supplies, but our streams, waterways, and the Bay – our crowned jewel.

In the meantime, check out our resource guide to Pharmaceutical Disposal Sites to responsibly discard your unwanted and unused medication.

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.