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Sierra magazine
Anatomy of an Oil Spill

Eyes peeled for terrorists, the Coast Guard missed the boat—and San Francisco Bay took an ugly hit

By David Helvarg

Oil-covered birds like you've seen on TV look even worse in real life. Not the dead ones so much, except when a gull has ripped open a small grebe floating in the water and is pulling at its toxic guts.

Shipping executives don't have to use vessels that burn bird-mucking, cancer-causing heavy bunker fuel, but they do. After refineries have distilled out aviation fuel, gasoline, kerosene, diesel, and heating oil, bunker fuel is what's left. The only thing they can process after that is roofing tar. Cleaner fuels would prove marginally more expensive, but then U.S. consumers might have to pay a penny extra for their tube socks or Chinese-made toys. Besides, with modern navigation charting, radar, vessel traffic systems, trained crews, and experienced pilots, it's not like a large container ship is going to ram into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spill 53,500 gallons of that nasty stuff into the water.

Which, of course, is exactly what happened on Wednesday, November 7, 2007, when the 901-foot Cosco Busan hit the base of one of the bridge towers in heavy fog. U.S. Coast Guard controllers on Yerba Buena Island were watching the morning action on their tracking system. Unlike air traffic controllers, however, the guardsmen monitoring shipping traffic couldn't overrule the ship's Chinese captain or the American pilot guiding him and order a course correction. They tried to warn the pilot that he was running parallel to the bridge and heading for trouble, but he claimed otherwise. Two minutes later he took a sharp turn and hit an abutment supporting the span.

It wasn't only lack of authority, however, that hindered the Coast Guard that day. It was also hobbled by shifting priorities and funding in a post-September 11 era that emphasizes security over safety and stewardship, as well as a federal oil-spill-response system that gives industry first say in how messes are cleaned up.

For almost two years I'd been working on a book about the Coast Guard, the smallest and least known of the armed services. Between trips with "Coasties" from the Bering Sea to the Persian Gulf, I moved to Richmond, California, a tough East Bay town with a waterfront marina where Rosie the Riveter once built the Liberty ships that helped win World War II. Those famed cargo vessels are dwarfed by today's massive container ships.

"Ships are so large now that you don't need an oil tanker for a major spill," says Admiral Craig Bone, former commander of the Coast Guard's 11th District. "Fuel can be a major spill." The Cosco Busan was carrying 2,500 large shipping containers; many ships now carry more than 10,000. Unlike oil-laden tankers, giant cargo ships aren't required to have a tug escort when they enter or leave major U.S. ports, even on the foggiest of days.

I'm sitting on the dock of the bay--that's what Otis Redding called the Berkeley Municipal Pier in his famous song. Now it smells like a gas station. On the rock pile below me, a surf scoter--a diving duck--is using the bottom of its red bill to preen its oil-blackened feathers. It shakes its head and carefully repeats the process for the half hour I'm there. When I make too sudden a move, the bird flaps its wings like it's going to flee into the water, where it would likely die of hypothermia, its natural insulation ruined. I'll see dozens more blackened birds today: scoters, grebes, gulls, cormorants, and a ruddy duck.

The marina behind me has a big oily sheen. "Rainbows of oil" is an inaccurate description: Gasoline leaves rainbows; bunker fuel leaves green and brown smudges like marbled meat gone bad. Sometimes it's not even liquid, appearing as floating tar balls, disks, globular curlicues, and concentrations of hard, asphalt-like toxic chips.

Even though a third of San Francisco Bay has been filled in, it remains one of the nation's great urban estuaries, a vast shallow body of water with a broad delta to the north, where the freshwater of the Sacramento River meets the salty tidal surge from the Golden Gate's narrow opening halfway down the bay. That makes it a natural nursery for crab and fish, which exist side by side with the bay's maritime marvels of ships, ferries, and sailboats.

The oil has already spread out through the Golden Gate onto San Francisco's Ocean Beach and north to Point Reyes National Seashore. In the bay, Angel Island and Alcatraz are a mess. At the nearby Richmond Marina, where I live, a western grebe lies exhausted on a rock. Stained black, the bird seems to stare at me with anger and reproach, red eyes burning. (I know that's anthropomorphic thinking: The grebe has no idea what's killing it.) The next day workers boom off my neighborhood wetland using long, snaky lines of yellow barrier floats to keep the oil out, though some has already gotten into the salt marsh and meandering creek beyond.

This spill isn't large compared with historic disasters like the 8 million gallons released in and around the Gulf of Mexico after Hurricane Katrina or the 11 million gallons from the Exxon Valdez in 1989 that devastated the waters and wildlife of Alaska's Prince William Sound. Shortly after the Cosco Busan incident, the Black Sea and the Korean peninsula are hit by oil spills orders of magnitude larger. Still, 17 agencies including the Coast Guard are involved in this response. If a terrorist or nut job had put a gaping hole in the side of the Cosco Busan, the Coast Guard would have sent its Maritime Safety and Security Team gunners surging up to it on their 25-foot-long machine-gun-equipped, orange-hulled "Defender" boats. Instead, the first on-scene accident investigators are tardy, undertrained, and slow to grasp the severity of the problem.

If it wanted to, the Coast Guard could make a good case that it's the oldest U.S. environmental agency. The EPA was only created in 1970 and the Department of the Interior in 1849, while the Revenue Cutter Service (the Coast Guard's predecessor) got its first resource-protection assignment in 1822. That's when Congress directed the service to guard stands of live oaks along the coast of Florida. Government warships were built using their strong, dense wood, and by the early 19th century, timber "scoundrels" had begun cutting them down and shipping the lumber north. By the 1860s the service was also patrolling fishing and whaling grounds off Alaska and going after seal poachers who threatened to wipe out the fur seal population on the Pribilof Islands.

Today the Coast Guard works to prevent oil and chemical pollution, enforces fisheries laws, protects right whales and other endangered species, tries to control invasive species like zebra mussels by regulating ballast water exchange in ships entering U.S. ports, and uses its icebreakers as platforms for a new generation of scientists studying the impact of climate change on the Arctic. The agency first learned of the threat posed by large oil-tanker spills in 1967 when the breakup of the Torrey Canyon befouled the beaches of France and the United Kingdom with 30 million gallons of oil. The Exxon Valdez spill led to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which made the Coast Guard responsible for managing a billion-dollar fund for emergency cleanups and investigating illegal dumping at sea.

In Boston, I once accompanied a Coast Guard inspection of a foreign oil tanker. While such investigations continue to lead to multimillion-dollar fines against shipping companies that dump oily wastes, much more of the Boston Coast Guard's time is spent guarding liquefied-natural-gas tankers against a possible terrorist attack. This post-September 11 shift helps explain why the agency is more than a year behind in its review of response plans for container-ship spills and 19 years behind in writing final regulations for the Oil Pollution Act.

When I hear that a ship has hit the Bay Bridge, I call my public-affairs contact to confirm my previously scheduled interview with Admiral Bone. I'm assured the problem is being handled and the admiral is available. So as oil spreads across San Francisco Bay, I spend nearly three hours interviewing the man who, before taking over the 11th District, held the top regulatory and environmental post in the Coast Guard. At six feet one, slim, and with silver hair and copper-rimmed glasses, he exudes authority. I ask about that morning's collision.

"Helicopters are up, cutters are on the water, and a unified command is operating," he assures me. "This is a perfect example of how the Incident Command System works as a way to flow forces and organize everyone."

Of course, it only works if you have the right information, resources, and trained people on the water. The Cosco Busan was reporting that 140 gallons of fuel had spilled from its 8:30 a.m. collision. The first Coast Guard vessel (from the base at Yerba Buena Island, which connects the two sections of the Bay Bridge) took 43 minutes to arrive. Because of fog and mechanical issues, the first Coast Guard helicopter wasn't airborne and assessing the situation until 4:40 p.m. Despite mariners' reports of extensive oil in the water, the agency didn't realize it was a major spill until 4:49 p.m., when inspectors finished testing the fuel tanks. Then-captain and sector commander William Uberti didn't notify the public or the city of San Francisco about the spill's actual size until nine that night, having earlier rejected an offer of help from a San Francisco fireboat.

Even though he is not aware of the sector's response, or lack thereof, as we speak, Bone addresses the general problem he sees in the Coast Guard as a result of the changes that followed September 11. After the terrorist attacks, he says, "we shifted assets to security, and we failed to keep pace on the safety and environmental side." In recent years, the service's program for spill-response training has been cut back, as has oil-spill-response staff.

By the time I get home that evening, oil-pollution warning signs are already posted.

The next day I call the Coast Guard's Station Golden Gate to see if I can go out with them. "If you're interested in the oil spill, you don't want to come here," Chief Kevin Morgan says. "We haven't been given any tasking on that. We're just doing our regular work."

Fishermen whose crab-season opening has been postponed because of the spill offer to assist with the cleanup but are turned down by the Coast Guard and the private oil-response contractors hired by the ship's insurers. The city of San Francisco later hires them to help out.

A day later I talk to Mike Day, commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Pacific Strike Team, and learn that none of the skimmers, booms, or other response equipment stored in the unit's big airplane hangar is being used. "If they're not satisfied with the contractors, they'll call us in," he tells me, "they" being the unified command made up of contractors working for the shipping company Regal Stone ("the responsible party"), the Coast Guard, and the state of California.

"The strike team's assets cost a lot of money," Day later explains, "so the responsible party that pays for the cleanup would rather not use them. If their $61 million liability insurance is exceeded, then we're called in."

Barry McFarland, the hefty lead contractor for Regal Stone, explains, "If the Coast Guard is the best tool for us, we'll use it." He says that the response was good and that by 11 a.m. (two and a half hours after the collision) five skimming vessels were on the scene or on the way. But with just over a dozen people in the Bay Area, the contractor then had to bring in more workers from Los Angeles, Texas, and elsewhere over several days, people who were unfamiliar with the bay and the Northern California coastline's treacherous tides, currents, inlets, and at-risk beaches and marshes. Meanwhile the Pacific Strike Team, local fishermen, and volunteers could have responded in the first 24 hours, laying out protective booms and operating a flotilla of skimmer-equipped vessels in key areas before most of the oil got onto birds and beaches.

The unified command calls a press conference at Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, where it has started cleaning oil that's come ashore. At the end of the two-lane road is a crowd of park police and rangers, TV satellite trucks, reporters, and politicians. I say hello to Captain Uberti, a bluff, bald guy with glasses and a white mustache who is now the federal official in charge. He will be replaced as incident commander in less than a week and take early retirement by the end of the month, but right now he still has his game face on. I ask about delays in communication, and he dismisses them as insignificant. "Everything that needed to be done in terms of response was getting done that morning," he says.

Up to 20,000 birds will die in the coming days and weeks. That night's TV news shows aerial footage of a pod of dolphins swimming through the oil.

At 7 a.m. on the spill's fifth day, I go to the command post and join a Shoreline Cleanup and Assessment Team. We drive down to the Coast Guard's Yerba Buena boat basin, where three Defenders and three black rafts are waiting. Ours will be heading to the scenic hillside and houseboat town of Sausalito, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

In the middle of the bay, I spot a large sea otter swimming on its back. They're a rare sight here, and normally I'd be thrilled, but now I want to shout, "Dude, get the hell out of here before you get slimed!"

Turning into Richardson Bay, we pass a large blue and white skimmer ship, one of three that has been collecting oil offshore. Then comes our first injured bird, a western grebe that keeps bending its long, elegant neck to preen its oiled back. We enter a few marinas and pass some anchor-outs with oiled bottoms. The next harbor entry is boomed off; tar balls are stuck to the absorbent boom material. We motor past several mega-yachts--Flipper, My Girl, Maximus 2--and a dead floating cormorant.

A month later outside reviewers commissioned by the Coast Guard publish a 130-page report on the initial response to the spill. They find that a lack of training by the first responders contributed to their inability to accurately assess the spill size. Five of the sector's six marine-casualty investigators were not fully qualified, and the Coast Guard failed to get a qualified state investigator out to the damaged ship in a timely manner. The vessel traffic controllers and Incident Command Center on Yerba Buena Island were not working together or even using the same radio frequencies.

The Coast Guard did find that the shipping company's contractor had enough skimmers on the water during the first days after the spill. Unfortunately, the state of cleanup technology is such that both state and federal officials consider recovering 20 percent of the spilled oil a huge success.

Nine days after the spill, with 1,500 people involved in the ongoing cleanup, I flew to Bahrain to report on the Coast Guard in Iraq. I joined up with 110-foot cutters protecting Iraq's two big offshore oil terminals in the northern Persian Gulf. Along with chasing off ships that threatened to enter the security zone around the terminals, boarding Iraqi fishing dhows, and patrolling a disputed maritime line between Iraq and Iran, we did security boardings of supertankers before they filled up at the terminals. One of the tankers, the red and green BW Noto, weighs 286,000 tons, is 1,100 feet long, and, when fully loaded, can carry 2 million barrels of oil. That's $200 million worth of product at the time of our boarding, a hellacious amount of planet-warming carbon dioxide soon to be pumped into our atmosphere, or the equivalent of eight Exxon Valdez oil disasters were the lightly crewed ship to hit a rock, reef, or bridge.

Two weeks later I returned to find 20 mostly Mexican contract workers in haz-mat suits cleaning oil off the rocky shore behind my home. A month later an oil barge ran into the nearby Richmond Bridge at the north end of the bay, another case of human error. Luckily no oil spilled--this time.

David Helvarg is president of the Blue Frontier Campaign (bluefront.org) and the author of several books including Rescue Warriors: The U.S. Coast Guard, America's Forgotten Heroes (St. Martin's Press, May).

Postscript: In response to the Cosco Busan spill, California passed seven new laws to speed response and improve cleanup efforts, including a requirement that local officials be trained to fully utilize volunteers.

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