CALIFORNIA--Critics Say Oil Spill Response Plans Under Attack : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread


Published Tuesday, March 14, 2000

Drills needed to be sure, critics say Oil spill response plans under attack


If one of the 700 oil tankers a year that cruise into San Francisco Bay spilled its gooey load, cleanup crews would have just a few hours to avoid an environmental disaster. Speed and efficiency would be critical.

Environmentalists charged Monday that California regulators are compromising both by not moving quickly enough to conduct cleanup drills or making sure mop-up boats and other spill response equipment are readily accessible.

They say some oil shipping companies are finding a way around the state's tough anti-spill law by contracting with cleanup contractors that own no boats or equipment but promise to get others to deliver both in emergencies.

"Oil spill defense for San Francisco Bay is turning into a paper tiger," said Warner Chabot, director of the Center for Marine Conservation. "They have plans on paper to meet the law, but we're worried they can't deliver in a real spill when speed is crucial to limiting the damage."

Environmentalists say their fears worsened in August, when the state Department of Fish and Game made its first attempt to carry out a 10-year-old legal requirement for unannounced drills. One spill response company refused to make the dry run, saying it was unfair to make a private business pay the $500,000 cost of hiring boats and crews for the drill.

"Would the public trust a fire department that had to rent a fire truck and hire firemen for every 911 response?" asked David Nesmith of the Save San Francisco Bay Association.

The head of the state Fish and Game oil spill program said he also is concerned about response times. Gary Gregory added, however, that it is too early to say whether the companies aren't qualified to protect the Bay.

"We need to test them. That's why we're going to have drills. Right now, we don't have evidence they won't work," he said.

The state Department of Fish and Game is scheduled to unveil its surprise drill program at 10 a.m. today in Sausalito.

Gregory said cleanup companies initially will be evaluated on their ability to mop up oil in open water.

Environmentalists say that's not good enough, that companies should be tested on the ability to keep oil out of environmentally sensitive wetlands and shoreline areas that are rich habitat for fish, birds and animals.

The push for oil spill response plans emerged after the Exxon Valdez tanker dumped 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaskan waters March 24, 1989. A year later, the California Legislature passed a law requiring companies that ship or receive oil to draw up spill response plans or carry out drills to prove they are ready for similar emergencies.

Major East Bay oil companies like Chevron, Shell and Tosco assigned the task to a cooperative called Clean Bay that spends $5 million a year to have ships and employees ready for spills 24 hours a day.

But an increasing number of other oil shippers are hiring independent contractors to draw up response plans that basically rely on the "on-call" availability of boats, barges and cleanup crews from various sources. Environmentalists say the method is cheaper and less of a hassle for the shippers, but more dangerous for the Bay.

"My concern is we're setting the bar too low," said Clean Bay director Steve Ricks. "You end up with an uneven playing field for meeting the law. Why should our members continue to subsidize the rest of the industry?"

John McLaurin of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association said he thinks the state needs to review its enforcement on the oil spill law.

He said his group doesn't oppose unannounced drills, nor having private companies pay the costs. But shippers also want a clearer understanding of the drill requirements, he said.

The debate is complicated by laws that allow state and federal agencies to call in all private responders for a major oil spill.

This weakens the economic incentive for some firms to spend significant amounts of money on preparations because they know other companies will rush in help during a bad spill, state officials said.

-- (, March 14, 2000

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