Search by Category

Subscribe to our News Feed

Lessons from the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

Assemblymember Mark Leno
California Progress Report

In the weeks since 58,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel from the Cosco Busan spilled into San Francisco Bay, each of us has been reminded of the Bay's central importance to our region's wildlife, economy, fishing fleet, tourism industry, and human health, and its place in the hearts of the people of Northern California.

Like so many, I was rocked by the devastating news and joined the relief efforts on the ground by combing beaches for signs of the spill. The outpouring of emotion and support I witnessed on the beaches and in community meetings since the disaster emboldens me as we investigate the facts surrounding the spill, and more importantly, work to prevent such a disaster in the future.

In the hours following the spill, I participated in a number of briefings given by the Unified Command and others responsible for the clean-up efforts. It was clear from the outset that important questions needed to be answered and that ultimately, we must do a better job to protect our coastlines and marine wildlife. Assemblywoman Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and I called an emergency oversight hearing of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee to review the causes of the accident and the response efforts.

The hearing brought Bay Area Assemblymembers together with officials and agencies who could speak to the current conditions and the environmental damage, as well as the immediate steps necessary for a proper clean-up and protection of coastal and marine resources and wildlife. I would like to summarize a few of the most important points that came to light in the hearing.

1. The state Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) requirements for containment and clean up response by the shipping industry are inadequate. For example, the minimum amount of containment boom required for deployment in the first hour after a spill for a vessel the size of the Costco Busan is 600 feet. However, the Busan is a 900 ft vessel and considerably more boom was needed to surround the ship and the miles of fouled waters along the path of the ship.

2. OSPR reported they had a plan to deal with a wide variety of local contingencies including our bay winds and tides, but not for fog which is so prevalent in San Francisco Bay. Fog has been the excuse used by the Coast Guard and others for not knowing that the spill was much larger than the 10 barrels originally reported.

3. The decision not to immediately deploy the San Francisco fishing fleet in the clean-up effort was simply ill advised. According to testimony by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the San Francisco fishing fleet, trained in boom deployment and oil clean up, asked the Coast Guard where they were needed in the clean up effort on the day of the spill. The fishing fleet was informed their valuable expertise wasn't needed and that they should volunteer for waterfowl clean up.

4. The Coast Guard also failed to notify local agencies in a timely manner that the spill had occurred, that it was much larger than originally reported, and that tides and currents would send oil to coastal areas around the Bay and the Pacific coast in Marin and San Mateo Counties. These agencies could have brought immediately additional resources to the containment and clean up effort. In the case of some East Bay jurisdictions, there was never any contact from the Coast Guard, including agencies that control large swaths of Bay shoreline.

5. Workers employed by the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), the nonprofit entity created by the oil and shipping industry to clean up spills, have said that 20 people were available in the early hours after the incident to deploy boom, but the actual need was 60 workers.

6. There are disputes of exactly when the first clean up vessels arrived at the spill site and why there was a delay in contacting MSRC for clean up that further contributed to poor containment and response. The spill occurred at 8:27 a.m., but reports suggest that the MSRC wasn't contacted until 9:17 am. According to testimony by the Marine Spill Response Corporation, the first clean up vessel with oil skimmers and containment boom did not arrive at the spill site until 9:50 a.m., one hour and thirty-eight minutes after the incident. However, San Francisco Baykeeper testified that their vessels, which were at the spill site at 10 a.m., reported that there were no booms or skimmer vessels on the water and that the Coast Guard reported to them at 11 a.m. that booms were not yet available.

7. The Department of Fish and Game (DFG) did no testing of water or crab before allowing crab season to open everywhere except 3 miles off the coast near San Francisco Bay. Instead, this narrow fishery closure was based on where oil was seen during aerial observation. However, given the strong currents of the Golden Gate, the fact that crab and fish are mobile in the water, and subsequent reports of oil outside the 3 mile zone, my Assembly colleagues and I are concerned that the area of the fishery closure may not be adequate to ensure that crab and fish contaminated with oil will not make it to the market. DFG and the state Department of Public Health are now testing marine life and water for oil contamination, and the first results should be available this week. Regardless of the test results, a wider closure would have been more prudent.

8. Clean up vessels, equipment, and crews retained by the oil refineries in Contra Costa County were never called upon by the U.S. Coast Guard, OSPR, or MSRC. Instead, teams were flown in from as far away as Louisiana and Florida to respond. Clearly, a list of available federal, state, local, and private containment and clean up assets needs to be maintained and available to the Unified Command, and the Coast Guard must deploy these assets faster and in a more coordinated way.

9. Bunker fuel, the waste product created after other products are refined from oil, is one of the dirtiest burning and thickest liquid fuels available. In fact, the bubble gum like material must be diluted with diesel or other distillate fuels before it can be used in engines. This fuel pollutes the air, is far more difficult to clean up after a spill, and simply should be banned from use in all shipping vessels by the federal government. Other distillate fuels are cleaner and readily available and environmental groups have been pushing for a ban on bunker fuel for nearly ten years.

The hearing was an important first step because as we understand the circumstances leading up to the spill and the causes for the inadequate response, we will also learn how we can reduce the chances of another spill and how better to contain oil or chemical spills once they occur. Much is at stake, including a quintessential San Francisco industry— Dungeness crab. The livelihoods of local people working in the crab fishing fleet and crab processing industries depend upon the health of the Bay and consumer confidence in our safety standards.

This disaster also serves as a reminder of the vulnerability of some of our most treasured resources in this age when petroleum products and other toxics are transited virtually everywhere. In the coming years, as our ports expand to meet the needs of trading in the global economy, we must enact more stringent safety measures, do a better job of coordinating our local, state and Federal response teams, and expand nautical traffic control. Our oceans and beaches are among California's most valuable and beautiful resources. It is our duty and obligation to sustain their value and beauty for future generations.


Assemblymmeber Mark Leno represents the 13th District, which encompasses the eastern portion of San Francisco.