Oil Spill an Avoidable Homeland Disaster

| Sun Nov. 11, 2007 5:32 PM EST

oil%20trail2.jpgLast week's oil spill in San Francisco makes one thing painfully clear: we should, and don't, know better.

The early story was that the spill wasn't much. The main question addressed in just-after coverage was whether the Cosco Busan's collision with the Bay Bridge would affect traffic. The spill total? 140 gallons. That's a bundle of fill-ups, not good for the Bay by any stretch, but handleable, especially given the resources available, Coast Guard and otherwise. The clean-up? A month, said the rep from Fish and Game.

The cargo ship, en route to South Korea, hit the bridge at 8:30 Wednesday morning, but it wasn't until nearly 5pm that the Coast Guard realized that not 140 but 58,000 gallons of bunker oil (essentially container-ship fuel) were loose in the Bay, constituting the largest spill in the area in almost two decades. The spill, which inexplicably wasn't contained via a boom for hours, thus was spreading in all directions, including several miles out through the Golden Gate and into the open ocean.

The one benefit of oil in water is that because of the separation it's initially easy to track and, where response is swift, contain. So why wasn't a boom, which would have isolated the spill to the area directly surrounding the ship, utilized almost immediately? No telling yet, but early on Fish and Game said that private companies would handle the spill cleanup, companies hired by the ship's owners. Huh? That's the proper response an environmental and homeland security hazard? Let the industry mop up?

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California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who toured the spill this morning, has criticized those in charge for the slow response. She said she plans to meet with DHS-head Michael Chertoff this week to discuss better disaster response and preparedness.

Rescue and clean-up crews (and volunteers) have been scrambling for days, cleaning as many dying birds as possible, bagging oiled sand, and in general trying to triage the damage. Thus far the spill has contaminated 40 miles of waters and 20 beaches (map here), and has killed at least 171 birds, with 372 rescued birds awaiting cleaning. And it's not just the birds we need to worry about. Fish and other marine life are under threat as well, putting not only ecosystems at risk, and the area's entire seafood economy could be compromised for who knows how long.

Bottom line is, the spread of the spill was preventable. We have the technology and the wherewithal to respond to minor spills and contain them, and didn't. And that we didn't do so in a major metropolitan area with vast resources at our disposal (and it's not the first time) is less than encouraging. It also makes one wonder how many leaks on the open seas go unreported and unabated? If we can't get it together to protect the San Francisco Bay, home of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge, what do we think goes on where the only witnesses are wildlife?

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