Basketful of Bills in Cosco’s Wake

When the first drops of oil from the Cosco Busan hit San Francisco Bay last November, the most immediate task was to contain and clean up the oil. The slow reaction of the US Coast Guard and state agencies to perform obvious containment measures exposed communication and other problems that California legislators, led by Berkeley Assemblymember Loni Hancock, are busily trying to solve with a bundle of bills.

One of the most glaring shortfalls emerged as hundreds of volunteers headed to the shoreline to see how they might help. State and federal officials were slow to incorporate volunteers into cleanup and wildlife rescue efforts, citing safety and training deficits. As a result, most of these Good Samaritans were turned away.

Two bills, AB 2031 and AB 2911, seek to address the logjam for volunteer training. The first bill would require the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) to provide grants to local agencies so emergency officials could train volunteers in cleanup and recovery operations. The second would fund local agencies and organizations to train volunteers in bird and wildlife rescue in oil and chemical spills.

OSPR came under scrutiny for what Hancock and others saw as mishandling the cleanup. Nine days after the crash, Hancock and other members of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee held the first hearings on the spill. They determined that communication between the Coast Guard, OSPR, and local agencies broke down in the critical days following the spill.

Currently, the authority for dealing with oil spills and other emergencies on the bay falls to the Coast Guard. Coast Guard officials were unfamiliar with the geography of the area and lethargic in their response to clamoring local agencies. Chris Boyer of the Contra Costa County Office of Emergency Services says he offered everything—his agency’s expertise in hazardous spills, knowledge of the area that includes the largest stretch of coastline on the bay, and equipment—only to be told to wait. “I asked what I could do to help, and I was told to fill out this form,” recalls Boyer. Part of the legislation making its way through Assembly committees would invert the chain of command in the event of an oil spill to place local authorities on the top.

Also becoming clear was how under-resourced OSPR was in dealing with the spill’s aftermath. Non-agency scientists and other individuals tried to help soak up the oil by deploying newer technologies for cleanup that OSPR didn’t have. AB 2547 would require OSPR to set aside $5 million each year for purchases of modern equipment. AB 2912 increases OSPR’s responsibilities to include overseeing inland oil and chemical spills, and also raises the penalty for these spills to the level of maritime spills.

Another issue arising from the spill was its effect on fisheries. AB 2935 would require the California Department of Fish & Game to shut down commercial and recreational fishing within the first 24 hours of a spill, determine whether fishing could go ahead within 48 hours, and within seven days test the fish and shellfish in the affected waters for toxins. AB 1960 raises the fines for misreporting spills, but otherwise does little other than re-state existing spill-prevention law. Finally, AB 2441 would require all vessels carrying hazardous chemicals to have a tugboat escort in California’s harbors. Currently, no escort is provided.

At press time, all of these bills had passed the Assembly, with the exception of AB 2912, which was still in committee. Senate bill SB 1739, which would strengthen requirements for oil-spill response contractors, was also being heard in the Assembly, as was SB 1056, which requires OSPR to hold workshops in cleanup techniques such as burning off the oil.

However, the strongest bill proposed, AB 2032, died in the Assembly. It would have raised money for cleanup, levying a 25-cent fee on every barrel of oil produced or imported into California. A second provision in this bill tried to address the increasing size of container ships. As the Port of Oakland and other ports dig deeper channels to handle bigger ships and larger shipments, the fuel required to power these ships becomes a greater risk in the event of an accident; larger ships hold nearly as much oil as an oil tanker. AB 2032 also would have increased the amount of insurance required for these vessels.

Governor Schwarzenegger has come out in support of three of the bills: Assemblymember Pedro Nava’s AB 1960, Assemblymember Lois Wolk’s AB 2911, and Senator Joe Simitian’s SB 1739. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association’s Zeke Grader says Governor Schwarzenegger has opposed the strongest bills and is starving OSPR by loaning away its funds. “We’re hoping there was some oversight on the governor’s part, because he certainly missed some of the more substantive bills,” says Grader. “What we have right now is a weak, half-hearted position by the governor that misses an opportunity to better prevent and fully prepare for another Cosco Busan or worse.”

Comments are closed.