Blame Aplenty in SF Oil Spill Disaster

Tomorrow it will have been a week since a hugh container ship cut itself open on the Bay Bridge in the fog and spilled 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay. I have yet to see a really good newspaper story about this disaster (although I confess I haven’t been watching the Bay Area papers closely). But NPR’s All Things Considered ran a good story today, featuring an interview with Larry Collins, a crab fisherman who leads an industry group. His opening statement:

It’s ugly. A lot of dead birds, dead crabs floating. It’s in every rip, where the currents come together, the oil’s in the rip. It’s starting to get into the eel grass, it’s fouling all the beaches, the little coves. It’s everywhere.

Over 500 birds have been found dead already, some of them (such as Western Grebes) with only a spot of oil on their feathers. But from afar, the editorial coverage has been good. Daniel Weintraub (sub. required) of the Sacramento Bee opened his column with a great anecdote:

The San Francisco Bay Area has long been a hotbed of civil
disobedience. So it was only appropriate that, even as government
authorities tried their best to keep volunteers from helping with the
cleanup from last week’s big fuel spill, a man from Marin led a group
of monks-in-training on a covert mission to save a beach.

Moser was the ringleader, according to an account in the San Francisco
Chronicle. He and about 30 others, including 20 aspiring monks from the
Mill Valley Zen Center, ventured onto Muir Beach on Saturday afternoon.
They scraped up 500 bags of oil-laden sand before The Man – in this
case a National Park ranger – put Moser in handcuffs and led him away.

was cited for entering a restricted area and failing to obey an
official order, and then released. No word on the whether the monks
were also detained.

Funny? Sure. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. But the
story also illustrates a serious problem with the government’s response
to last week’s spill of 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel after a ship
slammed into a concrete support under the San Francisco-Oakland Bay

From the Coast Guard on down, it seems as if every
federal and state agency’s first response was to downplay the extent of
the problem, push away offers of help and try to retain control of
their turf, if not the hazardous oil spreading for miles onto some of
the most beautiful coastline in the country.

First, the Coast
Guard failed to notify any local agencies about the spill for more than
four hours after the full magnitude was apparent. Until then, according
to local officials, the guard was saying that only 140 gallons had
spilled, vastly underestimating the extent of the potential problem.

And the Los Angeles Times ran a gutwrenching (literally) column from Daniel Helvarg, author of "50 Ways to Save the Ocean." His opening:

Oil-covered birds look even worse in real life than they do on TV. Not
the dead ones so much, except when a gull has ripped open a floating
grebe and is pulling at its toxic guts.

Kong-based shipping executives don’t have to use ships that burn heavy
bunker fuel, the dregs of the petroleum process. Of course, cleaner
fuels would prove marginally more expensive, and U.S. consumers would
have to pay a penny extra for their tube socks or Chinese-made
children’s toys.

But I must say, my favorite reporting on this incident comes via my equaintance SFMike, who last week posted a nice series of pictures, along with a narration that gives a sense of how the story unfolded.

Best of all is his line and picture about the offending container ship that so stupidly ran into the Bay Bridge. Mike writes:

ship, "Cosco Busan" could be seen parked in the bay on Thursday
afternoon (in the photo below), like a naughty child who’s been made
to stand in the playground by himself after bad behavior.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

One thought on “Blame Aplenty in SF Oil Spill Disaster

  1. Thanks for that link, and no, the local Bay Area press hasn’t been very good at all from day one, when people were evacuating their offices in the downtown Financial District, and the Chronicle and its website didn’t even mention it until the next day.

    As a number of people have pointed out, the response from the government has been shameful as everyone tries to protect their own bureaucratic turf while turning away the thousands of people who could and should be helping clean things up. “No, you need a 24-hour course to even think of picking up tar on a beach, and we don’t know when one of those will be available” is a pretty stupid way to deal with a disaster. It just confirms what I already suspected — in a serious disaster, we really are on our own.


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