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Oil Spill

Around 8:30am Wednesday, November 7th, the 810-foot long Cosco-Busan, a 65,131-ton container ship leased to South Korea’s Hanjin Group, struck a impact bumper on one of the Bay Bridge’s towers, leaking 58,000 gallons of extremely polluting bunker fuel into the Bay’s tidal waters. What has happened since and will continue far into the future affecting the Bay’s wildlife, ecology and biodiversity is a legacy of oil spills dating back to 1971 when two tankers collided in San Francisco Bay spilling 900,000 gallons of oil. The US Coast Guard acknowledged, though have not explained why, they initially reported only a 140 gallon spill, and that by 4pm they knew it was over 50,000 gallons but failed to report to the public and appropriate local city and state agencies until 10pm the severity of the spill on the Bay’s already pollution choked waters. Complaints range from the delayed drug testing of the ships captain and crew to the delayed dispatching of clean up booms located within a mile of the disaster till hours later. Mayor Gavin Newsom has threatened legal action against the responsible parties and Governor Schwarzenegger has declared a State of Emergency in an effort to provide additional state personnel and equipment available to speed up the clean up process.


IFO 380, the bunker fuel spilled by the 160 foot gash in the ships haul, is one of the dirtiest forms of petroleum, and is used to power tanker ships like these to and from the Port of Oakland and around the world everyday. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), one of the chemical elements in this heavy residue bunker fuel, is also found coming out of automobile exhaust pipes, cigarettes, and though it is reported to evaporate and break down in reaction to sunlight within a few days to weeks, it doesn’t dissolve easily in water and binds to solid particles that settle to the bottom of water systems resulting in persistent contamination. Another toxic component associated with bunker fuel as well as all fossil fuels is naphthalene, another easily evaporative chemical also used in mothballs and a key component in the manufacture of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. Known to destroy red blood cells, it is commonly inhaled daily in low levels due to our extreme addiction to automobiles and their exhaust fumes as well as any burning of wood, tobacco, or industrial discharges. It breaks down fairly quickly in both air and water but does dissolve in water as well. Benzene, which is used by some industries to make plastics, resins, and nylon and other synthetic fibers, is also used to make some types of rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. It takes its place among the other contaminants found in IFO 380, though it breaks down slower and in greater exposure can cause harmful effects on bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia, particularly acute myelogenous leukemia, often referred to as AML. This is a cancer of the bloodforming organs. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that benzene is a known carcinogen. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the EPA have determined that benzene is carcinogenic to humans. If any of this wasn’t responsible for the headaches, nausea, and dizziness reported by those close to the spill, then perhaps it was the hydrogen sulfide also found in bunker fuel as well as other hydrocarbon fuels. Hydrogen sulfide is produced by bacteria that decompose animal and plant proteins in our mouth and gastrointestinal tract, and though we normally don’t think much of this common by-product of human and animal wastes with its characteristic rotten egg smell, it is known to have permanent or long-term effects such as headaches, poor attention span, poor memory, and poor motor function in many individuals who are exposed to high levels of this hydrosulfuric acid. It contaminants our air and water at toxic levels by industrial activities, such as food processing, coke ovens, kraft paper mills, tanneries, and petroleum refineries as well as wastewater treatment plants, gas and oil drilling operations, farms with manure storage or livestock confinement facilities, and landfills.


What does all this mean? I’m suggesting that living in the Bay Area alone probably has far greater human health risks associated with living in a moderately industrialized metropolis with no shortage of fuel burning vehicles and factories. The real concern is with the expected effects on marine wildlife for decades to come. Animal studies have shown low birth weights, delayed bone formation, and bone marrow damage when pregnant animals breathed benzene and we easily can see the debilitating effects on animals covered in oil. For many sea dwelling birds and thick furred marine mammals who depend on super clean feathers and fur for thermoregulation attempt tirelessly to preen themselves of the grease and ingest the contaminants directly. Many must remain ashore to try to stay warm and are unable to keep up with their metabolism’s constant need of food and often die of starvation or predation. In addition to the species that are constantly in and around the Bay and are affected, some 80,000 migratory birds that fly from the Boreal forests of Canada and stop off for feeding in the Bay have arrived and at the lowest weight of their life. Surf scoters and grebes are among the most plentiful in the Bay but the spill has traveled out under the Golden Gate Bridge towards the Farallon Islands where the largest colony of common murres south of Alaska nests in the winter. Harbor seals, Dahl's porpoises and harbor porpoises are also vulnerable. Once oil gets in their gills, fish can’t breath and some fish populations could be severely effected. Longfin smelt, which had been petitioned to be listed as a endangered species recently because of its record lowest population levels this year, could be forced into extinction by a spill like this. Herring, which is the only commercially caught fish in the area is expected to decline as they breed around this time, and persistent chemical residues can harm steelhead and Chinook salmon that venture through the Bay on their way to spawning grounds in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. As predatory fishes ingest contaminated food sources, heavy metals also found in bunker fuel can travel up the food chain. Tidal currents and wind catalyze the spreading of oil which has reached beaches, marshes, and barren cliffs all around the Bay and as far up the coast as Sonoma county. These ecosystems all contain rare and endangered species that may develop long lasting chronic effects on neurological and immunelogical development.


Many consolidated efforts by dozens of non-profits, state and local agencies such as the Office of Spill Prevention and Response and private companies like the Marine Spill Response Corporation are doing what they can to mitigate the extent of the disaster, absorb the oil from the water, and collect residue and tar balls that have washed up along the shore. Most oil soaked birds are being carefully removed, cleansed, and rehabilitated at the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia, CA by the collaborative efforts of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Other organizations involved with research, organization, and oversight of this blow to the Bay’s delicate biodiversity are Save The Bay, The Ocean Conservancy, The Bay Institute, and BayKeeper, which has operated monitoring vessels in the Bay since the spill was first reported. Scientists from these various organizations urged concerned citizens not to handle or clean up animals or contaminated areas by themselves. BayKeeper is collecting contact info for volunteers on their website http://www.sfbaykeeper.org/, and asking anyone who finds an injured bird to call the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 1-877-823-6926. BayKeeper also coordinates monitoring of tanker and ship transportation along with Vessel Traffic and the Coast Guard to try to prevent crashes like this and claim that most ship captains have clean records and are equally concerned with marine health.


The most recent spill in the Bay was in 1996 when the Cape Mohican, a military reserve vessel, spilled 40,000 gallons of fuel oil near Pier 70 in San Francisco. In 1988, 432,000 leaked from tanker at Shell’s refinery in Martinez, CA. An explosion on the Puerto Rican in 1984 resulted in the spillage of 1.5 million gallons of oil in the open ocean off the Golden Gate. These numerous and devastating human imposed catastrophes are dwarfed by the ExxonValdez tanker spill of 11 million gallons into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. What can be done to prevent this ongoing onslaught on the health and future of our repeatedly setback oceans and bays? Many organizations promote public education of the issues but we are inextricably embedded to tragedies of this nature resulting from our dependence on fossil fuels and consumer goods from afar. Almost every recreational area adjacent to Bay waters has been closed due to contamination and clean up and the deadly sheen has surrounded Treasure Island, Alcatraz, and Angel Island. If we are unwilling, or at least currently unable to give up our addiction to oil and its fatal side effects, one thing that can help secure the health and diversity of marine ecosystems is the support and development of Marine Reserves. We need to actively work to protect more marine regions from human activity to build up areas of increased resiliency and abundance so when these disasters come again (and they will), our oceans and bays can be better prepared to ride out the ecological disruptions imposed by humans. With the help of the National Marines Sanctuaries Act set up 30 years ago, we can do just that. The NMSA authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to designate and manage areas of the marine environment with special national significance due to their conservation, recreational, ecological, historical, scientific, cultural, archeological, educational, or esthetic qualities as national marine sanctuaries. Despite the groundbreaking efforts established 30 years ago by the NMSA, currently, less than 1% of California’s coastline that extends to 3 miles offshore is fully protected. Conventional methods of ocean resource management have been unsuccessful resulting in severe declines in populations of sardines, whales, sea otters, sea bass, white abalone, and many other forms of marine wildlife. A fragmented network of sanctuaries has been established from Santa Barbara to Half Moon Bay and discussion is in the works for extending that to Mendocino. While we live in a culture and society that often tips the scale in favor of humans, the hope of creating fully protected Marine Reserves is that they would restrict human activity to promote more marine health and resiliency. Since we came after the multitude of creatures of our vast marine waters, I think the least we can do for them and our own future generations to enjoy, cherish, and steward is be aware of the true impacts of our chosen path on this planet, work towards limiting those as much as we are capable of either as a nation, community, or individual, and support the work of organizations like Save the Bay, The Ocean Conservancy, BayKeeper, and Coalition of Organizations for Ocean Life, which has a petition on their website to support the creation of more marine reserves that you can sign by clicking here.