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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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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Track the path of San Francisco oil spill tanker

November 11, 2007

Watch the movements of the Cosco Busan, the tanker ship that crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and spilled tens of thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay.


BoatingSF.com provides animations of ship and boat traffic in San Francisco Bay. This is always an interesting and useful service usually provided in real time, but they’ve very astutely responded to the interest in the San Francisco Bay oil spill by providing an animation of the path of the tanker that hit the bridge.

In the image above, the Bay Bridge is the line that goes diagonally from San Francisco on the bottom left to the East Bay on the top right, intersected by Yerba Buena Island. the port of Oakland is on the right. You can see the Cosco Busan — the tanker ship responsible for the Nov. 7 oil spill — as a small red arrow next to the bridge. It’s just about to hit the bridge’s protective bumper. The blue arrow next to the Cosco Busan is the tug Revolution.

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Oil spill update November 9

November 10, 2007

San Francisco’s waterfront smells like an auto-repair garage. munipier_sign

After a disheartening visit to San Francisco’s Ocean Beach Friday morning, I went to Aquatic Park in the afternoon to see what things were like there. As my wife, my daughter and I approached the water, the smell was powerful and unavoidable. Unlike the familiar tarry smell of an old wharf on a warm day, this was a sharper, more pungent scent, reminiscent of visiting a dying car in the ward of a Mission District garage, surrounded by mechanics with solemn faces and purple gloves.

What we saw was both better and worse than the scene at Ocean Beach that morning.rocks_aquaticpark While at Ocean Beach I found four oil-covered birds in the space of an hour and a few hundred yards of sand, at Aquatic Park a great blue heron, a black-crowned night heron (I think) and a gull were all hunting a rocky reef exposed by the very low tide. It was encouraging to see them apparently unperturbed and behaving normally. But just a few feet away, the seawall and rocks closer to shore were black with oil. The oil on the surface of the rocks is one thing, but the spaces between the rocks are rich with life (an abundance of fish that surprises most people, crabs and other crustaceans, mollusks, worms, sponges, algae), as is the sediment beneath them. Oil in these places is unlikely to be recovered by even the most scrupulous cleanup, and the impact probably will be ongoing for decades.

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Black death on the beach

November 9, 2007

Oil spilled from a cargo ship that crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridgedead_murre_OceanBeach Wednesday morning continues to have a devastating impact on wildlife and beaches.

This morning, Nov. 9, two days after the spill, I went down to Ocean Beach near my home in San Francisco to see the effects for myself. It was awful.

It wasn’t as bad as the images you might have seen of the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, with waves that seemed composed of more oil than water basting the shore with a sickly sheen. And other nearby beaches are probably in much worse condition than Ocean Beach. But it was bad enough. Small clumps of thick, congealed oil were everywhere, and the smell of petroleum permeated the air.


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