How one of the worst environmental disasters in Bay Area history has led to surprising progress over the past decade

A Coast Guard 25-ft small boat patrols the Port of Oakland near the Cosco Busan on Nov. 10, 2007. The vessel struck the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled approximately 53,000 gallons of oil into the Bay. (Photo by Petty Officer Second Class Prentice Danner, U.S. Coast Guard.)

Ten years ago, on November 7, 2007, the Cosco Busan container ship hit a support tower on the Bay Bridge and spilled more than 53,500 gallons of dense bunker oil into the San Francisco Bay.

Due to miscommunication, responders didn’t know how big the spill was and initially reported that only about 400 gallons had spilled into the bay. As a result, the response was slow and crucial time was lost. The oil eventually spread as far south as Redwood City and reached northward to Point Reyes.

Days after the spill, crews cleaned beaches around the Bay Area. (Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer Jonathan R. Cilley)

In the last ten years, environmental groups have worked to evolve from these errors, striving to more effectively stop spills from happening, halt spills before they spread and restore damaged ecosystems and recreational spaces. It is a surprising and hopeful silver lining to what was one of the worst environmental disasters in Bay Area history.

Sejal Choksi-Chugh, Executive Director of pollution watchdog San Francisco Baykeeper, pointed to the Cosco Busan incident as a critical wake-up call for her organization and many others like it. “Baykeeper had always had a finger in the pot as a watchdog for oil spill and response,” she said. “The 2007 oil spill really kicked us into gear to put both hands in.”

Ten years later — amazingly — the San Francisco Bay Area has benefitted in tangible ways from the progress made by groups such as Baykeeper in the wake of the Cosco Busan incident.

Cleanup crews attend to a beach in the Marin Headlands during the immediate aftermath of the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007. (Photos by Charles Russo)

Lessons learned

The fallout from the spill was immediate, far-reaching and highly destructive. The oil spread quickly, killing thousands of birds and damaging wildlife and natural habitats. According to local and federal agencies, the spill killed an estimated 6,849 birds, impacted 14 to 29 percent of the herring spawn that winter, oiled 3,367 acres of shoreline habitat, and resulted in the loss of over 1 million days of recreation by users of outdoor spots due to area closures.

After the spill, a damage assessment incorporating more than 70 studies analyzing the spill’s impacts was compiled, including an investigation of the initial evaluation and response.

At the time, the standard response protocol was to involve only the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the responsible party, according to a press release by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Had more local agencies on the shoreline been notified in advance, Choksi-Chugh noted, they could have taken the critical step of quickly putting out protective “boom,” or floating material that can contain oil and keep it from spreading.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi speaks with cleanup officials (and national media) at San Francisco’s Crissy Field, in the wake of the Cosco Busan oil spill. (Photo by Charles Russo)

The post mortem of the Cosco Busan incident highlighted these types of glaring shortcomings, and advocated for improvements that would ensure better handling of any future incident.

“There are now much stronger alliances between all stakeholders in spill response, ranging from the various levels of government, to industry, to environmental organizations, to concerned members of the public,” according to Thomas Cullen, administrator at the spill prevention and response office, in a press statement.

The Cosco Busan container ship sitting anchored in San Francisco Bay during the aftermath of the 2007 oil spill. (Photo by Charles Russo)

After the spill, a damage assessment incorporating more than 70 studies was put together, which resulted in a lawsuit against the ship’s owners and operators, Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Ltd.

A settlement was reached in Sept. 2011 that resulted in $32.3 million being awarded to a group of agencies, including the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, California State Lands Commission, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. A restoration plan designated $5 million for bird restoration; $4 million for habitat restoration, $2.5 million for eelgrass restoration and $18.8 million for recreational improvements. About $20 million of that settlement fund has been spent so far — some on projects you may have experienced in the Peninsula and local waterfronts.

Settlement dollars have helped pay for upgrades to the Foster City kiteboard and windsurfing area; improvements to Coyote Point in San Mateo, the youth and family program at the Palo Alto Baylands, Bay Trail beautification efforts in East Palo Alto. They’ve funded some coastside projects too: improvements to the Pacifica pier and Montara Beach, and access and erosion control planning at Surfer’s Beach.

Access an interactive map of all the projects here.

Cleanup crews remove oil from a beach in the Marin Headlines during the days after the Cosco Busan oil spill. Note the different colors of the cliff face in the background. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Keeping the Bay clean

In the last decade, local organizations such as Baykeeper have worked to minimize the risk of future oil spills by limiting the amount of oil that’s brought into the bay. According to Ms. Choksi-Chugh, the group fought off the installation of a new oil storage facility in Pittsburg and an expansion of the Valero oil refinery in Benicia. Right now, they’re embattled against Phillips 66, which is seeking to bring in more oil tankers near the bay at its refinery in Rodeo, near the Carquinez Bridge.

The organization was also behind a number of state laws passed since 2007 intended to improve public safety during oil spills. A 1.5 cent per barrel fee increase now helps raise funds for oil spill response, and required unannounced emergency drills and inspections for oil spill first responders to help ensure emergency readiness. Another law requires local emergency responders to be notified promptly when a spill happens, and for volunteers to be trained to respond properly with the right equipment.

Two Coast Guard small boats set a security zone around the 900-foot container ship Cosco Busan. The ship hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge Nov. 7, 2007. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Melissa Hauck)

More locally, Baykeeper has gone after other sources of pollution in the bay, like stormwater runoff, industrial heavy metals and sewage. Baykeeper has worked with cities like Burlingame, Hillsborough and San Carlos to reduce the number of sewage spills that can pollute the bay. Each year, she said, there are still hundreds of small oil spills into the Bay, each up to a few gallons.

“That could all be undone the moment a big oil spill happens,” she said.

And, she noted, another spill is a question of when, not if. A lot of oil is brought in and out of the bay via oil tankers, and on the shoreline via oil trains and refineries.

“There’s definitely a chance of another big spill happening again,” she said. “The only thing that would prevent it…is if we get to a point where we’re in a clean energy future.”

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Bay Area reporter covering local government, inequality and the outdoors

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