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.

A sticky situation: Mystery Goo and Ongoing Threats to Bay Wildlife

A Black Oystercater stands along the MLK Shoreline in Oakland
The Black Oystercatcher pictured here is one of many species of Bay birds impacted by the “Mystery Goo.” Photo by: Rick Lewis

It has been painful over the last week to witness the impact of the “mystery goo” on birds in the Bay – a few of our staff saw the struggling birds and the people trying to help them near our restoration sites. We are so thankful that International Bird Rescue is working tirelessly to clean and revive as many birds as they can. Meanwhile, we are eagerly awaiting test results that will shine some light on what this substance is and where it might be coming from. The Bay is a permanent and temporary home to many bird species, including migratory birds that stop in the Bay during their journey along the Pacific Flyway. Clean and healthy Bay water is vital to ensuring that shorebirds have ample habitat and food to survive.

This incident is a stark reminder of how susceptible Bay wildlife are to water pollution. Fortunately, large-scale chemical and oil spills don’t happen often. But pollution is being released into local creeks and the Bay on a daily basis through urban runoff (also known as urban stormwater pollution). Urban runoff is the water the flows off of our buildings, lawns, cars, and streets and into storm drains, which release untreated, polluted water directly into creeks and the Bay. Since most of our urban areas are covered in concrete, runoff is not reabsorbed into the ground, where chemicals can be filtered out. Instead, the Bay becomes the unintended recipient of trash, fertilizers, detergents, pesticides, and any other chemical that gets washed into city streets.

While we aren’t sure what caused the mystery goo or how to prevent it, we do have the power to prevent trash and other pollutants from flowing from our city streets into the Bay. That’s why Save The Bay continues to partner with cities to adopt strategies and policies that can prevent water pollution, before the costly – and often impossible – task of cleaning it up becomes necessary.