The 2007 San Francisco Bay Oil Spill: Lessons Learned, Questions, and Policies6 min read


Today and this week the San Francisco Bay oil spill has moved into the phase of oversight hearings by our political leaders.

Ocean Conservancy wants to offer the following lessons learned (to-date) from the spill; a set of key questions that should be answered (to further learn what worked and did not work. Finally we want to suggest some policies that should be considered, (to avoid a repeat of this disaster).

We believe that is premature to launch a detailed discussion of solutions, since we still don’t have all of the facts about what worked and did not work. However, since several political leaders have scheduled oversight hearings, we offer the following possible lessons, questions and suggested actions.

Preliminary Lessons Emerging from the 2007 SF Bay Oil Spill:

1. As the foggiest harbor in the U.S., with almost 4,000 major ship arrivals to S.F. Bay each year (and 10,000 ship moves), the odds for human, mechanical or electronic error in navigation make an occasional collision and resulting spill virtually inevitable.

2. The size of cargo ships is increasing – most are single hulls and most carry enormous amounts of fuel in tanks that are located at water level. The Cosco Busan spill could have been 10 times larger.

3. Because oil spills spread exponentially, containment (in the first few hours), is the most critical factor in a successful spill response.

4. The ecological and economic impact of a spill on our coast or bay ecosystems can be vastly compounded by human error in communication or logistics that delay the response during the critical first hours.

5. The available information on the Cosco Busan indicates that the existing procedures (or their implementation) failed to contain a fuel-oil spill of modest size, even when the point of origin occurred only one mile from a substantial stockpile of spill response equipment.*

6. The best-available oil-skimmer technology can only recover a small percentage of a spill if it is not contained in the critical first hours.

7. Spill prevention is much cheaper than attempts at cleanup, and prevention deserves a higher priority from our society and our leaders than it has received in recent times.

8. Secondary to spill prevention, policies that ensure rapid containment of any spill should be the next most important priority.

9. The state legislature and the administration (through the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response), have a rare opportunity to learn from this accident and have the authority to make necessary revisions to spill prevention and response policies within and outside of San Francisco Bay.

10. We don’t yet have all the facts about the specific actions by the key parties in the critical hours after the Wednesday morning 8:30 am collision. Once those facts are collected, the state legislature and the administration, and the Congress, should have a full and open evaluation of options to improve vessel traffic and spill prevention and response policies for the waters inside and outside of the Golden Gate Bridge.

11. For the sake of our environment and our local economy, we need to do a better job of protecting our most sensitive coastal and marine environments. The public response to this accident confirms the very high value that we all place on the quality of life, the food, and the economic productivity that these resources provide.

Conclusion – Spill prevention, rapid containment, ecosystem protection, and restoration all need our immediate attention at this time.

* (The Marine Spill Response Corporation – Go to Click on Gen Info, then Equipment Info, then CA Region, then S.F. CA. This site shows one mile of boom and a spill response boat located at Pier 50, due south of AT&T park and approximately one mile from the spill site.)

Some questions that should be answered re: the containment of the Cosco Busan spill

1. When was the decision made to deploy containment boom to the site of the spill?

2. When did the first vessel containing significant containment boom leave the storage facility?

3. The website of the private spill response contractor for the Cosco Busan (MSRC)* indicates that one mile of boom and a spill response boat was located at Pier 50 (just south of AT&T park) and about a mile from the Bay Bridge collision site.

4. When was this boom and boat deployed? How soon?

5. Since the technology exists to calculate the trajectory, speed, and therefore likely location of any spill on the bay, how soon after the collision was boom deployed in the path of the spill?

6. How much boom was deployed and when and where was it deployed for each critical hour, in the 5-6 hours after the collision?

7. Where is a copy of the Obriens-authored spill response plan for the Cosco Busan? What were the immediate response procedures in this spill response plan? How soon after the collision was the plan implemented? Did the response procedures require or ensure the rapid deployment of containment boom?

* (The Marine Spill Response Corporation – Go to Click on Gen Info, then Equipment Info, then CA Region, then S.F. CA.)

Spill response policies that should be considered

1. All spill response plans should be updated to require the rapid deployment of containment boom after any major shipping collision. This is a fundamental, cost effective, common-sense policy for San Francisco Bay.

2. The state should review all existing oil spill response plans to ensure they are capable of deploying containment boom within two hours, or within the shortest reasonable time period, for any collision within S.F. Bay.

3. Unannounced drills should be conduced by the CA Department of Fish and Game, to ensure that any private spill response contractor can meet this standard.

4. Large ships with fuel located near water level, should be subject to additional spill prevention policies, including the consideration of tug escorts while in SF Bay.

5. The legislature and Governor should reconsider the Governor’s recent veto of Senator Byron Sher’s 2004 bill to require tug escorts of chemical tankers.

6. Tug escorts of large cargo ships should also be considered.

Ocean Conservancy promotes healthy and diverse ocean ecosystems and opposes practices that threaten ocean life and human life. Through research, education, and science-based advocacy, Ocean Conservancy informs, inspires, and empowers people to speak and act on behalf of the oceans.

As the Vice President for Campaign Strategies, Mr. Chabot manages Ocean Conservancy’s campaigns in California the Caribbean, Florida, New England and Hawaii. These campaigns inform, inspire and empower citizens to enact state and federal policies to restore and conserve the health and diversity of living ocean ecosystems. In his fourteen years at Ocean Conservancy, Mr. Chabot led successful campaigns to enact landmark laws and policies to conserve fisheries, restore and protect ocean habitats and waters, recover vulnerable ocean wildlife and reduce sources of pollution and establish new ocean governance structures. Mr. Chabot received a B.S., with Honors, in Environmental Planning from the University of California at Santa Cruz.


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