10 Years Ago This Week…

Game-changing. Transformative. Heartbreaking. Many different words encapsulate the oiled wildlife response during, and readiness improvements subsequent to, the Cosco Busan incident in San Francisco Bay.

From the email wayback machine, 7 Nov 2007 @ 14:08hrs:
“Hi all – Just a quick note. The OWCN was activated this afternoon to respond to an allision of a container ship to the Bay Bridge this morning.  We have dispatched two teams of 2 people…to recon and assess wildlife impacts in the area.  At this point, it appears to be a fairly small spill in terms of volume, but has impacted the area around Pier 39, so public visibility and potential to impact birds and sea lions is moderate.  We are working directly with DFG-OSPR…and will have a better idea of the scope of response that will be needed later this afternoon. Let me know if you have questions or concerns. Thx! Mike”

Little did we know what the next several months of response, not to mention the ensuing decade of changes to readiness protocols, would come from this “fairly small spill”.

Today (8 Nov 2017) marks the 10-year anniversary of the day when oiled birds began to be collected by OWCN staff and volunteers and transported to the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care & Education Center. To honor and remember this event, I have written (and re-written) this blog post three different times – each with different emphases, information, and emotional attachments, as the event still triggers in me a variety of conflicting thoughts even to this day.

My first blog post was aimed to be a more general informational post, describing the event, what happened, the early confusion, why it happened, public reaction, and the resulting response efforts that occurred. However, over the past week there have been many insightful and factually accurate articles detailing this type of information, including a series of posts from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration as well as me providing much of that information in the OWCN Blog on the five-year anniversary, so adding to the mix didn’t seem as valuable as other approaches. Besides, there is always Wikipedia.

My second blog post draft was intended to focus on the OWCN’s wildlife response efforts – the 1,084 live birds (of 31 species), the 1,854 dead birds (of 45 different species ), and the 1 live/6 dead mammals that were collected – as well as the overall impact estimates of, among other effects, more than 6,800 birds killed. However, again, there has been wonderful information provided by CDFW-OSPR, NOAA, and the other Trustees this week detailing the estimated losses and how these resources are being restored. So no reason to reiterate points that have been well told already.

My third draft was designed to highlight all of the changes that occurred within CA oiled wildlife response efforts immediately after Cosco Busan, including the addition of numerous wonderful Member Organizations, the OWCN officially being given the mandate to lead recovery (and later hazing) efforts on behalf of the State, revisions to protocols and procedures, increasing and expanding our pool of trained responders, further improving facilities, and the like. But, again, much of was covered previously by me and others, and, aside from showcasing the fact that the OWCN prides itself on a vigorous self-improvement policy (through active internal and external after-action efforts) after each and every incident, to me it didn’t convey the depth of emotions nor the excellent work of all Network Members.

So that leads me to this, the fourth and final draft of my blog post. I simply want to thank, from the bottom of my heart, each and every person that was involved with the wildlife response efforts that so affected us all 10 years ago in the SF Bay region. Your dedication to improving the lives of injured wildlife during this disaster, especially an incident caused by human error, is awe-inspiring, and the OWCN cannot put into words how much we value your time and involvement. I also wanted to thank the OWCN Management Team staff at UCD (both current as well as past) for taking our responsibility as seriously as I do. Lastly, I wanted to recognize one specific individual, the late Jay Holcomb of International Bird Rescue, for his lifelong dedication to marine birds that was exemplified in this event.

To honor as many people as possible that were involved in this massive undertaking, I have added below a slideshow of all the responders that I was able to photograph during the “33 Days of Oil and Soap” that was so eloquently captured by the late artist (and Cosco volunteer) Doug Ross in his T-shirt design above.

Again, thank you!

-Mike

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Happy Anniversary Cosco Busan!

Exactly five years ago today, the OWCN received a call from OSPR about a small spill (approx. 140 gallons) in San Francisco Bay from a container vessel that had an “allision” (yes, I had to look that one up!) with the Bay Bridge. At that point, no oiled wildlife had been seen but, as a precaution due to the more than 1.6 million birds that come to the SF Bay each year, two teams were requested to do some initial reconnaissance. Our teams quickly mobilized to the area and observed what looked like a lot more than the original estimate of oil on the surface of the water, as well as a large number of shorebirds and waterfowl throughout the area. Later that afternoon, OSPR and the US Coast Guard developed their own estimate of the volume spilled – 58,000 gallons of intermediate fuel oil – and, as they say, the rest is history; history that has changed the face of oiled wildlife response in California since.

In the ensuing two months, the OWCN mounted its largest oiled wildlife response to date, ultimately collecting 1,083 live oiled birds and 1,854 dead ones before the conclusion of the event. It also mounted the largest field collection effort ever instituted, with more than 300 person-days of search effort and greater than 1200 miles of coastline directly searched (in addition to hundreds and hundreds of miles scanned by recovery and reconnaissance staff and volunteers). At the facility, more than 400 person-days of staff and 1500 person-days of volunteer effort was used, with volunteers giving more than 13,000 hours towards the effort. At the height of the effort, more than 740 live birds were in the never-before-used-for-a-large-spill San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center, fully testing the purpose-built facility to close to its designed capacity with very challenging species such as surf scoters, grebes, waterfowl, and loons. The facility, as well as all personnel involved, responded admirably, ultimately releasing more than 420 clean birds to their natural environment.

This is not to say everything went smoothly – far from it on many fronts. There are many reports and reviews on these issues, so I will just concentrate on a few of those that impacted or related to the OWCN. First, it being a environmental disaster in the backyard of a region that is proud of their strong environmental stewardship, there was a demand from Day 0 from the public and governmental officials to get key information on who was at fault and what they were doing to fix it. Compounding this demand was a sense of distrust from the mis-reporting of the spill volume early in the response, as well as less-than-optimal reporting on response activities. Second, because the SF Bay is a very dynamic waterway, the oil quickly spread throughout the Bay from San Rafael south to Hayward, as well as outside the Bay from Palomarin to Pacifica – making cleanup and recovery challenging. Third, while the OWCN had participated in recovery of oiled wildlife in the past (providing experts to support the effort), it had not been given the mandate to lead such efforts, so training and recruitment of interested personnel was not at the same level as animal care efforts. This led to a sense that not enough field personnel were available and on the beaches. Confounding this was the newly-developed OWCN Hotline for reporting oiled wildlife – a hotline that crashed in the first weekend due to the massive numbers of people calling it to get any available information they could pertaining to the spill. Last (and certainly not least) was the huge number of individuals interested in volunteering to help respond to the spill. Traditionally, the Unified Command sends all of these people to wildlife operations to assist in rehabilitation but, since the OWCN has developed such a robust volunteer corps of more than 2,000 pre-trained individuals, the OWCN needed very few “convergent” or “spontaneous” volunteers. This rejection, coupled with early mis-information, lack of timely messaging, and a large spill area, created a “perfect storm” of public dissatisfaction with the response.

Since the conclusion of the Cosco Busan spill, many audits, reports and inquiries have been done to better understand the problems and flaws of the system to better improve readiness in the future. Several of these included information directly related to the OWCN and its operations. On the whole, the OWCN was highly praised for its animal care systems and capacity to quickly provide “best achievable care to oil affected animals”. However, two key elements in the Department of Finance audit of the response and the US Coast Guard’s Incident Specific Preparedness Review related directly to the OWCN:

  • It was noted that field operations in California needed to be significantly increased to provide a similar level of services to the OWCN’s animal care arm. In working with OSPR and the Legislature, AB 2911 (Wolk) provided additional funds “to officially  make the Oiled Wildlife Care Network responsible for the proactive search for and rescue of oiled wildlife, and improve the number of volunteers and capacity to train volunteers used in rescuing oiled wildlife”. The OWCN has since moved forward aggressively with a Recovery program (and, more recently, with a complementary Field Stabilization program), and now has more than 270 fully trained individuals throughout the state ready and able to respond to oiled wildlife on the beach.
  • It was also identified that volunteers from the public should be incorporated into the response effort if at all possible. Because of the breadth of the OWCN program in California, additional responsibilities for interested individuals needed to be found, as well as working out liability and training issues for such activities. OSPR, in concert with the OWCN and other non-governmental organizations, have since developed a “Non-Oiled Wildlife” Volunteer Plan that identifies a number of other tasks that interested people can take part in, as well as be available to the OWCN should additional volunteers be needed for animal care.

While not directly noted as necessary in the many reviews that occurred after the event, the OWCN has also beefed up other parts to its system post-Cosco, including (but not limited to): 1) a more responsive and robust wildlife reporting hotline that can be rolled to a live attendant or a system like San Francisco’s 211 program during spills; 2) a better communication flow directly from the OWCN, including this blog and other social media outlets; 3) more field stabilization units for deployment nearer to spill locations should the be at a distance from a primary care centers; 4) greater hazing capacities should oiled animals need to be kept from a spill zone; 5) additional recovery equipment such as ATVs, boats and a Mobile Command Post; and 6) increased supply caches at each primary care center.

These are just a few of the many “lessons learned” from the Cosco Busan response, and why it is important to not only do excellent work during the spill, but to critically evaluate the successes and changes needed after each spill to improve systems and capacities. While California is largely considered the most capable and responsive region in the world for oiled wildlife response, events such as these help to remind us that you can never be too prepared should another “allision” occur in the future!

– Mike

Cosco Busan Operator Guilty

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The SFBOWCEC During the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

(Excerpted from an article from Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read full article)

The company operating the container ship that struck the Bay Bridge in November 2007 and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of water pollution and falsifying documents and agreed to pay $10 million in fines and penalties.

Fleet Management Ltd. of Hong Kong admitted two felony charges and a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in San Francisco after negotiating its fine with federal prosecutors. Judge Susan Illston, who can accept or reject the agreement, scheduled sentencing for Dec. 11.

The ship’s pilot, Capt. John Cota, was sentenced to 10 months in prison last month after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of polluting the waters and killing migratory birds. Cota was navigating the 901-foot Cosco Busan when it hit a tower of the bridge in thick morning fog Nov. 7, 2007. Oil that poured from the ship spread along 26 miles of shoreline and killed more than 2,400 birds. The government estimates the cleanup cost at $70 million.

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Volunteers Releasing Birds During the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

In its guilty plea, Fleet Management admitted that it was partly to blame for the accident because it failed to provide adequate training to the ship’s new captain and crew, who allowed Cota, the locally assigned pilot, to leave port in the fog and did not monitor his navigation.

When Cota asked about two red triangles that showed up on the ship’s electronic chart, the captain told him they represented lights on the bridge, and Cota headed the vessel in that direction at full speed, according to court documents acknowledged by Fleet Management. In fact, the documents said, the lights represented buoys that were supposed to warn ships away from the bridge tower. The Cosco Busan hit the bridge several minutes later.

Fleet Management also admitted presenting false and forged documents to the Coast Guard about the ship’s voyage plan in order to obstruct the government’s investigation. The company agreed to pay $8 million in fines and $2 million to a government fund for environmental projects, including cleanup of water pollution. Fleet Management and Cota are also defendants in multimillion-dollar lawsuits by government agencies, fishers and others claiming financial losses from the spill.

– Mike

Oiled Wildlife – Reflections and Recent Events

Plt A Cleanup

Cleanup during 1969's Platform A Oil Spill (Courtesy LA Times)

The first three months of 2009 was a busy time for oiled wildlife response throughout the world!

For the U.S., remembering the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound (20 years ago) and the Platform A oil well blowout in Santa Barbara that started the US EPA (40 years ago), we have had time to reflect on the devastation that oil spills can wreak on the environment.

In looking back, we have also had an opportunity to evaluate how far we have come for spill preparedness over this relatively short period of time, but also emphasizing where additional attention should be placed.

We have also had several spills in, and reports from, different areas of the world that have shown us that constant readiness and research is critical to make sure oiled wildlife responders are as ready as possible to help affected wildlife in distress.

Several key news articles have come out in the past several months detailing many of these issues.  The OWCN has been very active on many of these fronts, and is working with the key colleagues in these areas to help where we can.  These include:

Oiled turtles from Queensland ready to be released (Courtesy ABC: Michelle Hill)

Oiled turtles from Queensland's oil spill ready to be released (Courtesy ABC: Michelle Hill)

We hope that providing this type of info regularly in the OWCN’s blog, we can keep everyone up-to-date on the most recent information out there, and let you know what the OWCN is doing to help on these broader issues related to oiled wildlife response.  After all, the best way for us to provide the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife is to share the knowledge and experience that exists!

-Mike Ziccardi, Director