Bay spill Senate hearing to decide: What went wrong

A Senate hearing targeting the San Francisco Bay oil spill will aim to pinpoint those responsible and examine the effectiveness of the state’s spill-prevention policies, environmental safeguards and the role of private firms in cleaning up the mess.

State Sen. Dean Florez, who is co-chairing Friday’s hearing, said private companies paid to clean up the 58,000-gallon spill do not have an incentive to react quickly.

“Right now, the law gives us a six-hour cleanup period. I don’t think there’s an incentive to make the cleanup smaller, because these [private] companies are making more money, the bigger the spill.”

The state response to the spill has come under attack from Sen. Don Perata, D-Oakland, who criticized the Schwarzenegger administration for not being adequately prepared for the spill. Representatives from the commercial fishing industry have also taken the state to task for what they say has been slow response to the spill. The administration has rejected those allegations.

Zeke Grader, Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations (PCFFA), contended there were errors on the part of state Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), the Coast Guard, and the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG) in reacting to this latest spill.

“All local entities were kept on the outside,” said Grader. “DFG should have made immediate closures.”
Grader contends that DFG should have called all surrounding commercial and recreational fishing companies as soon as they knew where the oil was.

“They didn’t define where the closures were until one week after the spill,” he said.  

Like Florez, Grader also questioned the effectiveness of the private responders, those companies hired by the city and state for cleanups.  

“If we’re going to have private companies [involved in the clean-up], there needs to be public oversight on either the federal or state part. The Coast Guard and OSPR need to make sure that the MSRC is equipped with the tools to handle the cleanup,” said Grader. “In this instance, [they reacted] like a deer in headlights.”

Grader said his organization is seeking to change the way the state responds to spills in the future.

John McCammon, the acting director of the Department of Fish and Game (DFG),  defended the state’s policies.

“There were 22 boats brought in from private fishing fleets, which is consistent with our current policy. We rely upon and depend on private sector in these oil responses, including using fishing fleets,” he said.  

“There was a pretty clear picture of where the oil spill was and where the impact took effect. I have not heard any questions concerning the validity of that.”

McCammon said the agency is going through an internal investigation that could eventually lead to a change in policy. That report was expected to be released this week. But during the hearing, the DFG would not be requesting any policy changes, he said.

The hearing Friday will focus on the role of the OSPR, and the steps taken by the Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRP), in the hours following the Nov. 7 crash of the Cosco Busan. The container ship dumped 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay after colliding in the fog with a Bay Bridge support tower.

The spill killed thousands of birds and damaged the livelihood of commercial fishers.

The joint hearing has been organized by Florez, D-Shafter, and Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, who chair the Senate Governmental Organization and Natural Resources committees, respectively.

“We’re going to see if California is prepared to handle these kinds of spills,” said Florez. “We’ll be exploring the law structurally, focusing on response and our ability to get to these [accidents] quicker.”

Florez said he intends to look into the usefulness of volunteers into better utilizing “on the spot” citizens to help in cleanup efforts instead of making the public wait for aide from private companies.

“I’m hoping to discuss the facts,” noted Lisa Curtis, the Deputy Administrator for OSPR. “We’re still waiting for an investigation to come out,” apparently to the ongoing internal review.

“We’ll be open to any opportunities for us to do our job any better,” she added.

OSPR was established in 1991 following two major spills: the 1989 Exxon Valdez fiasco which dumped approximately 11 millions gallons of crude oil in Alaska, and the American Trader spill of 1990, which lost 300,000 gallons of crude oil off the shores of Huntington Beach, California.

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