Gov. Brown Restores Power to Coastal Cleanup

Logos of 39 Environmental Organizations that wrote to Gov. Brown urging him to reverse suspension of the Coastal Act.
39 Environmental Organizations, including Save The Bay, formed a coalition to urge Governor Brown to reverse his decision to suspend the Coastal Act in response to the Santa Barbara Refugio Oil Spill. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of these organizations, the governor lifted the suspension, ensuring a more effective cleanup.

The Santa Barbara Refugio Oil Spill last month highlighted the importance of keeping a close eye on business and government to avert further environmental destruction. When Governor Brown declared a State of Emergency in response to the spill, a loophole suspended the California Coastal Act, making cleanup efforts less stringent and specific. A group of 39 environmental organizations, including Save The Bay, successfully pressured the governor to restore regulatory power and ensure a more effective cleanup.

In the midst of environmental crisis, immediate and effective disaster response is key. Over 100,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Pacific Ocean, poisoning marine mammals, birds and fish. Both Refugio State Beach and El Capitan State Beach were closed due to the dangerous conditions posed by the spill. Additionally, over 138 square miles of ocean were closed to commercial fishing.

Brown recognized the need for emergency action, but the governor’s attempt to “cut red tape” suspended the California Coastal Act, the primary law that governs the standards for development within the Coastal Zone. Suspending the Coastal Act compromised the Coastal Commission’s ability to ensure that Plains All American Pipeline, the company that owns the pipeline that ruptured, is held responsible for the cleanup and restoration of environmentally sensitive habitat areas (“ESHA”), wetlands, and marine resources.

Susan Jordan, director of the California Coastal Protection Network explains, “It makes no sense to suspend the very law that was created by a citizen initiative, in response to the massive 1969 oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, to address situations like this. If anything, this is the time to make certain the Coastal Act’s protective policies are administered and enforced.”

Save The Bay joined 38 other environmental organizations in writing a letter to Governor Jerry Brown, asking him to rescind suspension of Chapter 7 of the Coastal Act, which deals with coastal development stating that “the scenic and visual qualities of coastal areas shall be considered and protected as a resource of public importance”. The letter expressed deep concern about the Santa Barbara Refugio Oil Spill and the long-term impacts on California coastal environments and communities. The coastal damage that has already occurred as a result of the spill is unacceptable, and the spill was caused, in part, due to weakened regulatory oversight that resulted in a delayed shut down of the pipeline.

In response, Governor Brown reversed his order, reinstating the Coastal Act and putting regulatory standards back under the control of the California Coastal Commission.  This is a huge victory for the environmental community, as the Coastal Commission is best equipped to manage the process of cleanup and restoration and will ensure that the task is undertaken with environmental sensitivity.

Brown’s decision to lift the suspension of the Coastal Act is a reminder that environmental organizations like Save The Bay must stay vigilant and act as watchdogs on important policy issues to protect our precious natural resources.

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.