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Waiting for the Next Oil Spill Disaster

Environmentalists say that six years after the Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge and dumped 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay, the state has failed to learn from its mistakes.

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By sunset, the tanker had delivered its cargo of crude petroleum to a North Bay refinery and was passing underneath the Golden Gate Bridge en route to its next port of call in Ecuador. Then, just past the bridge, as the ship made its way through the bay's neck, the engine froze and the electrical system failed. Without power or steering, the tanker drifted toward the rocky cliffs of the Marin Headlands. The captain knew the water in the straight was too deep to drop anchor, so he ordered his crew to lower the starboard anchor only partially, hoping it would catch in the shallows near shore and stop the ship from running aground and spilling the contents of its fuel tanks.

Onlookers on the bridge braced for disaster as the ship came within meters of Point Diablo. "The whole tanker spun around and almost nosed into the point," one witness told ABC7 News. But the captain's swift action worked, and just ten minutes after the power cut out the ship stopped.

"It's a miracle that nothing happened," said Amy Trainer, an environmental activist who's been researching Northern California's oil spill prevention infrastructure for months. The Overseas Cleliamar, as the 38,000-ton vessel was named, was one of 130 tankers that navigated the San Francisco Bay in January 2009. Between the oil refineries and the busy Port of Oakland, the San Francisco Bay sees hundreds of vessels carrying hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil each month. Given the numbers, Trainer and other environmentalists are worried that it's just a matter of time before there's another spill — and that the state isn't prepared to deal with it.

As the executive director of the Environmental Action Committee of West Marin, Trainer is part of a coalition of a dozen environmental groups that's urging state officials to beef up California's spill prevention efforts and response plans. The coalition penned a letter to the top brass at California's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) and other regulatory agencies in August. The groups claim the contingency apparatus in Northern California doesn't meet state law and worry this will lead regulators to default to chemical dispersants if there's a spill.

After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill and the American Trader spill the following year in Southern California released a combined 11.3 million gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean, California passed legislation to protect state waters. The Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill and Prevention Response Act mandates the "best achievable protection" of coast and marine waters using the "best available technology." But Trainer's coalition, which includes the Sierra Club California, the Surfrider Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity, and a number of fishing groups, contends the state is relying on out-of-date technology to deal with major oil spills. "This is California — we're a center of emerging technologies, we're supposed to be leading the way," Trainer said. "Instead, we're years behind and that has to change."

Lawmakers passed new legislation to improve preparedness and response after the Cosco Busan struck one the Bay Bridge's towers and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil in 2007, but the near-disastrous Overseas Cleliamar incident two years later, and a close call in January of this year in which a tanker scraped the bridge again, are proof there's more to do, Trainer said.

She's especially concerned because the bay saw an increase in the number of instances in which vessels lost power off the coast after the California Air Resources Board started requiring ships to switch fuel types in state waters in 2008. At sea, tankers and cargo ships use heavy bunker fuel, because it's the cheapest fuel available. But when burned, the sulfur-rich petroleum product releases chemicals linked to childhood asthma and chronic respiratory problems. So to protect public health, the air board adopted regulations requiring ships to switch to a low-sulfur fuel that's less polluting. The new rules have been a boon to California's air quality, but they also inadvertently increased the risk of oil spills.

As one longtime captain explained it, many older vessels that are still in use weren't built to run on the less-viscous low-sulfur fuels that California requires, so the fuels can cause leaks, pressure loss, and other problems that lead to mechanical failure. And whenever a vessel loses power, there's a risk of a spill. Instances of propulsion loss rose 150 percent from 2008 to 2009 and have stayed at a rate more than double the rate of the years before the regulation went into effect. The near-grounding of the Overseas Cleliamar is thought to be linked in part to the use of low-sulfur fuel.

To protect marine resources, Trainer's group is advocating a number of reforms: Among other things, it's pressing for OSPR to create a system for rating the cleanup equipment used by the private companies that contract with ship owners for spill response, and for OSPR to make shipping companies help pay for more advanced cleanup and prevention technology. Chris Jones, a consultant who works with Trainer, points out that the Bay Area doesn't have a tugboat dedicated to preventing or responding to spills. In Alaska's Prince William Sound, where Jones helped design prevention and response plans, there are specialized tugs that include equipment like boom (the floating barriers used to contain oil) skimmers, and storage space for recovered oil. They're also equipped to deal with fires and powerful enough to tow a loaded tanker in rough sea conditions. Currently, harbor tugs operate only in San Francisco Bay, Jones said, and he doubts their ability to aid a ship in the hairy conditions outside the Golden Gate.

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