Looking back on the Cosco Busan

November 7, 2008

One year ago, the container ship Cosco Busan hit a bumper on one of the towers of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of toxic bunker fuel in San Francisco Bay.

(More following video below)

I went down to Ocean Beach to see the damage for myself, and things were pretty bad. I expected the beach to be completely black with oil, and thought it wasn’t that bad, it was bad enough, with blobs of oil from the size of marbles up to the size of dinner plates all over the sand, and more stuck to the wrack that always rests on the beach.

Oil blob, Ocean Beach

Oil blob, Ocean Beach

The worst part was the birds. I saw a dead bird covered with oil right away, and farther down the beach I found more that were still alive but heavily oiled and clearly in distress. I think the saddest sight was two little eared grebes hunkered down in the sand near the end of Sloat Boulevard, desperately trying to preen the oil out of their feathers. They likely ingested quite a bit of the oil stuck to them, in which case they probably didn’t survive.

Dead murre on Ocean Beach

Dead murre on Ocean Beach

One year later, some measures have been taken to prevent another spill and to better clean up afterward, but much more remains undone. A proposed law requiring double-hulled fuel tanks on cargo ships is stalled in Congress, some proposals for faster required response times have been rejected, and most glaringly there still is little training available for people who want to be part of volunteer cleanup crews in preparation for the next spill.

Oiled grebe on Ocean Beach

Oiled grebe on Ocean Beach

As for the impact of the spill on the environment of San Francisco Bay and the nearby parts of the Pacific Ocean coast, that’s still under study. One important piece of information will come in just a matter of weeks, when schools of herring make their annual journey into the bay to lay their eggs on eelgrass and various seaweeds. The herring fishery is the last commercial fishery in the bay, with herring eggs (preferably still attached to the seaweed) fetching a good price in Japan.

The pilot guiding the Cosco Busan on the day of the crash is set to go to trial in the spring.

For more videos of the Cosco Busan aftermath at Ocean Beach and Aquatic Park, including video of oiled birds and bird rescues, visit my YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/tpretesf.

For more photos of the oil spill, including some that the Weather Channel picked up for an episode of its Forecast Earth show, click here to visit my Flickr photostream. I’ve separated some oil spill photos into two folders to make them easier to find.

The San Francisco Chronicle did a good job of covering the Cosco Busan spill when it happened, and they’ve done a good job following up a year later. I don’t see any reason to reinvent the wheel here, so here are some links to my posts from last year, plus some Chronicle stories:

PretePress: Black death on the beach

PretePress: Oil spill updtate November 9

Pretepress: Track the path of San Francisco oil spill tanker

PretePress: S.F.’s Aquatic Park reopens after oil spill

Chronicle op-ed reviewing reactions to the spill and what needs to be done

Chronicle article on the role of the pilot and what went wrong

Chronicle on the ongoing environmental effects of the Cosco Busan oil spill

Chronicle on the lack of training for public oil spill response

Chronicle article providing a considerably rosier view of the bay’s recovery, from the USCG

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Cosco Busan pilot to get trial date

April 4, 2008

The pilot of the Cosco Busan is set to receive a date April 4 for his trial on federal charges related to the crash of the cargo ship into the Bay Bridge and the resultant oil spill into San Francisco Bay.

Pilot John Cota, meanwhile, has indicated that he thinks the Coast Guard shares responsibility for the spill, which killed and sickened birds and other wildlife in the bay and along the nearby Pacific Ocean coast. His lawyers have said Cota will refuse to testify in a National Transportation Safety Board hearing next week.

The Nov. 7, 2007 spill of 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay killed at least 2,000 birds and sickened an unknown but much larger number of others. While all other similar cargo ships in the bay that day remained at anchor because of heavy fog, the Cosco Busan set sail in spite of low visibility.

Today’s court procedure is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on the 15th floor of the San Francisco Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Ave., in the court of U.S. Magistrate Joseph Spero.

Cosco Busan cleared to set sail

December 20, 2007

UPDATE: The Cosco Busan indeed did sail out of San Francisco Bay the morning of Thursday, Dec. 20. 

The cargo ship that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay in November is ready to set sail. The damage to the ship’s hull from when the tanker struck a protective barrier around a tower of the Bay Bridge has been repaired, and all legal and administrative measures that had kept the vessel from leaving have been cleared.

As of this writing, the ship appears to be at anchor south of the Bay Bridge, according to the SF Bay ship-tracking Web site BoatingSF. Earlier this morning the pilot boat Golden G8 pulled alongside the Cosco Busan, but high tide just inside the bay was at 7:30 a.m. and at the San Francisco bar (a big sand bar just seaward of the Golden Gate) it was at 6:55. The low tide this afternoon is pretty low — minus 0.53 feet at 2 p.m at the bar — so unless they leave soon, even if the Cosco Busan is empty of cargo it’s possible that the ship will not exit the bay until later. That’s just speculation on my part, though, as I’m not familiar with the shipping channels in detail.

The next high tide at the bar is at 9:02 p.m., then again Friday morning at 7:41.

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SF Gate story

KTVU bungles oil spill animal stories

S.F.’s Aquatic Park reopens after oil spill

Track the path of San Francisco oil spill tanker

Oil spill update November 9

Black death on the beach

KTVU bungles oil spill animal stories

November 23, 2007

KTVU continues its embarrassing misidentification of common Bay Area animals this morning.

OK, so to update this post for the record, the afternoon after this original post I saw a piece by Janine De la Vega on KTVU’s 5 p.m. news broadcast, and it was repeated (probably slightly modified, thought I didn’t see it) at 10 p.m. It was much better than the crab story, and much more in keeping with the station’s usually higher quality of reporting. De la Vega reported on the deaths of a number of seabirds and the near-starvation of others in the Monterey Bay area. She didn’t reach for any conclusions that weren’t supported by the facts she presented. The piece didn’t go as deep as I would have liked (there’s a much bigger story behind these starving birds with potentially huge environmental and economic importance), but it was nicely done as far as it went.

The impact on wildlife and the fishing industry following the Nov. 7 oil spill from the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay is one of the most compelling elements of media coverage of the story. While the fact that the impact runs deep and is likely to go on for a long time is bad for the Bay Area in general, for the media it presents an opportunity for some great work that’s not only compelling and informative for news consumers but also stimulating for the journalists producing it. It ought to give the television news a change from “breaking stories” about snow in Blue Canyon, at any rate.

However, many media outlets can’t seem to properly identify the animals they’re covering. In the days immediately following the Cosco Busan spill, nearly every local television news station showed footage of harbor seals lounging on shoreline rocks (I saw the group that hangs out near Point Bonita in the Marin Headlands most often) while inaccurately calling them sea lions.

Harbor seals and sea lions don’t look much alike unless they’re swimming fast and you can’t get a good look at them, and because they occupy different ecological niches they are likely to experience different effects from the oil spill. Confusing a harbor seal with a sea lion is like not being able to tell the difference between a duck and a swan, or even between a compact car and a pickup truck. Similar in some ways, sure, but not that much.

Nevertheless, there’s little harm in this elementary identification error. Neither harbor seals or sea lions are economically significant to the region, and both represent more or less the same “awww” factor for average viewers.

But this morning KTVU — normally my favorite local TV news source — took bungled animal identification to a new and journalistically unacceptable low.

Read the rest of this entry »

S.F.’s Aquatic Park reopens after oil spill

November 22, 2007

San Francisco officials reopened Aquatic Park Wednesday morning, returning the popular waterfront spot to swimmers, boaters and tourists looking to get a little sand between their toes. Aquatic Park, on the city’s northern shore close to Fisherman’s Wharf and Ghirardelli Square, had been closed because of contamination from the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill.


I visited the area two days after the spill (see Nov. 9 post here), and went back this Wednesday to see how things had changed.

The first thing I noticed was that aggressive smell of petroleum that permeated the air nearly two weeks ago was gone. The string of yellow tape that had blocked access to the water had been taken down, and people strolled along the beach. The sun was bright, birds bobbed in the water and probed the rocks for food. I even saw someone swimming. In short, to a casual observer everything looked like it was back to normal.

But I wanted a closer look. I had timed my visit to take advantage of the afternoon’s lowaqpark_seawall_112107 tide, since it was roughly the same as when I was there Nov. 9 and would provide an accurate comparison of conditions. I climbed down the seawall and examined the shoreline more carefully, and discovered that it still was easy to see rocks coated with oil. Municipal Pier was still closed, too.

In spite of the footage and photos of San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin swimming at Aquatic Park on Wednesday morning (is it me, or does it look like he’s really hit the gym since thoseaqpark_rocks_112107 pictures of the speedo-clad legislator appeared in San Francisco Magazine earlier this year?), I think the impact of the Cosco Busan is going to be with us for a long, long time.

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