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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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Partly in response to the coalition's pressure, state Assemblyman Mark Stone convened the Committee on Coastal Protection in late August for a hearing on the state's oil spill response preparedness. Stone's district encompasses the Monterey Bay, and he has a longstanding interest in coastal protection. Shortly after he took the stand at the meeting, OSPR administrator Thomas Cullen addressed one of Trainer's key concerns: "We continue to hear recommendations that we need to exercise spill response capabilities ... seaward of the Golden Gate," he said, pausing to look up at the committee members. "We feel that this is unnecessary and could increase the risk of an incident." He went on to explain that disrupting a ship's progress when it's headed into or out of the bay is dangerous.

But for Jones, that's the point: Because the area beyond the bridge is congested and currents can be treacherous, there's a heightened risk of spills. And if response crews are not practicing rescue and cleanup efforts in those conditions, they won't be prepared when there is a spill. Jones looked grave as he read his testimony during the hearing, glancing up at the committee as he drove home his point: "What you do not drill you simply do not have," he said of the training needed to properly respond to oil spills.

Jones and Trainer worry that a lack of emergency drills and mechanical infrastructure will leave responders little choice but to rely on chemical dispersants. While Cullen told committee members, "We do not see dispersants as a silver bullet for oil spill response, nor would we ever see dispersants as substitutes for mechanical response technology," the activists see a lapse in his logic. "From our perspective," Trainer said, "the fact that they aren't drilling out there means they're totally unprepared to do a mechanical recovery so they would rely on dispersants."

The growing body of data on the environmental and human health impacts of dispersants amassed since the Deepwater Horizon spill has led to criticisms of their effectiveness and toxicity. "If the worst should happen and a tanker loses most of its content, we're going to be spraying this stuff so quick," Jones said. "The American public has been fooled by the industry." Arguing that the oil industry has pushed dispersants because they minimize cost, he points out that Corexit, the dispersant used by the hundreds of thousands of barrels in the Deepwater Horizon spill, is manufactured by a company with close ties to BP and Exxon. "This stuff is snake oil," he said.

Ron Tjeerdema, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Davis who spoke at the hearing, offered a measured view of the chemicals. "It's ideal for nature to disperse [oil]," he said, "but sometimes that means resources would be damaged. For some species dispersed oil is more toxic, for others undispersed oil is. It's equally toxic to others. We have to decide which species we want to protect because no single tool can protect all species equally."

But if OSPR is going to help protect anything the agency needs funding. Perhaps the most pressing issue prompting Stone's hearing is the state of the Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund, OSPR's source of money. The fund faces an estimated $3.8 million deficit for 2013, Cullen told the committee, and while his agency is still meeting its central mission, several of its important mandates are unfunded or underfunded. Studies to improve oil-spill response, local equipment grants and local volunteer training programs are all lacking, he said, and the Oiled Wildlife Care Network is in jeopardy. Cullen blamed inflation and rising program costs for the deficit.

California's oil spill preparedness infrastructure is funded primarily by a per-barrel fee, currently set at 6.5 cents, on all crude oil entering the states. In January 2015, the temporary fee increase enacted in 2011 will sunset, dropping the fee down to 5 cents. The result, Cullen said, would be a $7 million deficit. He told the committee that every penny increase to the per-barrel fee provides an addition $5 million in revenue and recommended an increase to 7.5 cents. "We are actively working on more sustainable funding options," Cullen told the committee, though he didn't elaborate. The state Assembly had been weighing a bill, AB 881, to increase the fee to 7 cents, but it failed to get out of committee before the end of this year's legislative session.

In an email statement, Stone called the hearing a positive first step toward improving the state's ability to respond to a spill. "The experts have weighed in to say that we need to ensure that the state appropriately funds cleanup activities before there is a spill disaster," he wrote. "I am committed to finding ways to ensure that we're able to do so when the Legislature returns to session in January." Stone's legislative director suggested the assemblyman might introduce legislation then, but for the next three months he and his staff will focus on research.

"Spill response in California is complicated," said Alexia Retallack, a spokeswoman for OSPR. "We are constantly looking for opportunities to improve our strategies. Is there more? We believe we can always do more," she said. "But we're doing the best we can."

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