Friday, November 7, 2008

Experts: After Spill, Local Bureaucracy is Still Lagging Behind Clean Up

Though the ill-fated cargo ship Cosco Busan trudged through the San Francisco Bay one dense, foggy morning a year ago today, the consequences of the oil spill still reverberate not only ecologically, but at all levels of government.

Despite a bevy of bills signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and a far greater amount of awareness about the issue, critics complain that the region is still not sufficiently prepared to deal with another large-scale spill.

California Assemblyman Jared Huffman along with an environmental activist and local emergency manager, speaking today at the Commonwealth Club found that problems still exist in the areas of response.

Huffman, who represents Marin County, which suffered oil damage to the coastline at Bolinas Lagoon, wonders whether private contractors are the best choice for clean up. “Is it a good idea to rely on folks who wold make more money if the spill is allowed to worsen?” said Huffman.

He also questions whether the proximity of such responders, nearly all unfamiliar with the terrain and surf of the Bay Area are best equipped to handle situations.

Some out-of-state responders needed to be rescued from the ocean by volunteer fire fighters, he said.

“They have adopted at the Federal level this system of private contractors." said Huffman. "I think we ought to be questioning the effectiveness and the efficacy of relying on contractors who may be very good at what they do but are not located nearby when you need them."

Also problematic to the panel is the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 that, in effect, gives ship owners the first right to cleaning any spill.

"It is the culture of the oil spill response community to make best use of primary resources -- contractors that specialize in oil spill response. They have elaborate mechanisms and pieces of equipment as well as highly trained personnel that specialize in how to get heavy black stuff off the water into the boat," said Chris Godley, manager of emergency response in Marin. "That said, though, there are other resources that may be useful for such a response that are available from local and even state governments that were initially declined.”

These include the use of aviation, communication systems and local volunteers.

Godley noted the throng of volunteers itching to help clean Bay Area beaches was unprecedented in the United States. Most places where oil spills occur are in areas away from large metropolitan area as opposed to the leak in the greater Bay Area.

“Someone literally poured oil on your doormat, you’re going to want to go out and take care of it,” said Godley.

Sejal Choksi, the director of programs at Baykeeper, a local group striving to preserve the bay waters, believes the key to preventing a large scale disaster is too work quickly after the initial accident.

(For more, read Choksi's article in the opinion section of the San Francisco Chronicle.)

One problem facing the bay's unique geography is that technology does not yet exist to clean up some local coastlines. According to Choksi, the current in Bolinas Lagoon is too swift to operate safely; Angel Island is too rocky; and both Richardson Bay and the mudflats near Emeryville are too shallow to protect.

In the big picture, though, the speakers said that everyday pollution is a more manageable and growing problem than shipping containers floating in and out the bay.

"Oil spills are not the biggest threat to the bay," said Choksi. "They are a tremendous threat to the bay, but our everyday activities do pose more pollution problems for the bay’s health and water quality.”

Though he said that local officials were not ready to respond to the oil spill in the bay a year ago, Godley thinks some of the measures taken since then would have lessened the damage to the ecosystem. “Things may have been different had the provision now in place as a result of the Cosco Busan been in place at the time of the event.”


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