Bringing the Outside In

Eddie Bartley is a San Francisco-based naturalist ( and longtime volunteer for Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Golden Gate Audubon, and the Hungry Owl Project. When the Cosco Busan spill hit, Bartley surveyed for oiled birds and worked with San Francisco Animal Care and Control to rescue injured birds. Dismayed by bureaucratic confusion and inaction, Bartley is working on a Web site and an action map that should help alleviate agency dysfunction if—or more likely, when—there is another spill.

What are you aiming to do?

I’m planning to use some of the photos I took during the spill and those of others in a project aimed at NGOs and volunteers, with a broad goal of creating a call-to-action plan that was sorely missing during the Cosco Busan disaster. I hope to include big and little picture views of the spill from a historical and conservation standpoint in a Web-based publication that will link to many resources. It could be used to plan and implement action for future spills, advocate and facilitate training for volunteers and professionals, debunk myths that have crept into the system, and make transparent the agencies’ responsibilities and inter-relationships. Obviously we can’t rely on government agencies and the maritime industries not to minimize accidents such as this and to efficiently mitigate the effects. There needs to be public oversight and involvement.

What I don’t want to do is what every other group is doing. One of the things I’ve noticed is that there wasn’t an organizational plan or place to get volunteers involved. I’ve been advocating to San Francisco Animal Care and Control that they become part of Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). It was inspiring how involved the city departments got. They were frustrated and really wanted to mobilize, and they did to some degree, but they were undertrained and understaffed for handling wildlife.

The number one problem is that there aren’t enough people trained to capture wildlife. The officials told us they had 200 people out there doing rescue, but they needed more like 2,000. Not only should there be training but whatever funding comes from the Cosco Busan settlement, part of it should be peeled away and dedicated to mounting a local response force. Volunteer or not, this would be a trained force of teams working together from boats in the water and from land. There is way too much ship traffic in the bay not to have things localized. The O’Brien Group (hired by Cosco Busan to clean up the oil) was flying people in from Louisiana. We need to expand and think more logistically for when it happens again.

What are some of the “myths” you think have crept into this process?

I heard a presentation by a chemical engineer on oil, in particular bunker oil and toxicity levels. This was where I realized that we should not have been toeing the line with the officials (regarding the hours spent in HazMat training rather than in rescue), because the oil was not particularly toxic unless you’re a bird and covered with it. Every substance has its own story. Once there’s a spill, all the toluene and benzene in the bunker oil evaporates, and after six to twelve hours is almost all gone into the atmosphere. The toxicity level drops very low. We really need to know the truth about the toxicity of these products. Don’t greenwash it; don’t use smoke and mirrors. Just tell the truth about what it is. If you look at all of the different groups involved, it comes back to the feds or the state. These people are not telling the whole truth about the oil, and they’ve got liabilities, so you can’t be involved with them and have independent thought.

How are we going to fix this broken system?

There should be trained individuals who attend ongoing exercises and drills of how to handle spills just like any other emergency. These are the first responders. You need to be able to suddenly come up with a couple hundred boats and a thousand people. If that had happened, the number of wildlife fatalities would have been way down. We also need to work with existing agencies to modernize their approaches—how many Fish & Game wardens are available during a spill? This time there were not enough. And International Bird Rescue is seriously understaffed. They need to be independent, not under control of any agency; we need to get them out from under OWCN/OSPR (state Department of Fish & Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response).

How do you respond to agency biologists who say the oil spill is an isolated incident that doesn’t have population-level impacts?

In so many ways we marginalize these species every day that any opportunity we have at all to help them out, we’ve got to do it.

Read the latest legislation to improve spill response at Search keyword “spill response.”

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