Another disaster, another delayed response. Another round of finger-pointing, another chorus of denial. The San Francisco Bay oil spill isn’t getting the nation-wide attention of Hurricane Katrina, the Minneapolis bridge collapse or the SoCal wildfires, but its aftermath is depressingly similar.
Having been in the Bay Area since the spill happened a week ago, I have no feel for Seattle’s level of awareness. Think of it this way: If inner Puget Sound was coated with brown gobs of sticky goo, if beaches were closed to the public (even to volunteer cleanup), if boats at local marinas had tarred bathtub rings marring their hulls, and if waterfront property owners had days of cleanup on their hands…well, you might be seeing some play in the local media.
Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay have a lot of physical similarities, which makes it all the more puzzling that oil-spill experts from the Seattle area were not hustled down here as soon as the magnitude of the spill became apparent. (They may have been, as were crews from Texas and elsewhere, but it reportedly took three to four days to summon any outside assistance.) In any case, once oil spills in an enclosed estuary, it doesn’t exactly disappear in the wash. Expertise in current patterns, containment technology, weather and other variables is badly needed, and response time is absolutely critical.
So what did we have in the Bay? The Cosco Busan, a 902-foot-long container ship heading out of harbor in a heavy fog, apparently was warned by the Coast Guard that it was on collision course with the Oakland Bay Bridge, but kept going because, as the ship captain evidently radioed back, radar showed the ship position to be safe. One might think you call a time out in this situation to do some trouble-shooting, but the boat kept going. The next thing anyone knew, it had “touched,” as Capt. John J. Cota termed it, a bridge tower. He could have said “kissed,” he could have said “nicked.” But what really transpired was a demolished wood-and-wire tower bumper and a 160-foot-long, 4-foot-deep tear in the vessel’s side. Within half an hour, 58,000 gallons of really toxic diesel fuel had seeped out, the bay’s biggest spill in 20 years.
But we didn’t know that, either. Initial reports were that only 140 gallons had spilled. It took more than 8 hours before the full magnitude of the spill became apparent, more than 12 to send out a full alert. The fog had something to do with this, hindering air surveillance. But let’s face it, some folks weren’t using much common sense, either.
The initial fumble made everything else about the spill just that more awful. Bay Area jurisdictions weren’t notified in a timely fashion. Additional equipment and expertise took that much longer to get in motion. Days after the spill, hundreds of volunteers still were being physically barred from the beaches (at least one was arrested for disobeying authorities) with the warning that they could do more harm than good, and might get sick from the stuff. Hundreds of oiled birds, many dead, were found, the crab and oyster seasons have been affected, and experts say that the bulk of the oil will never be recovered and may play havoc with the bay’s ecosystem for decades. Next to history’s really big oil spills, 58,000 gallons seems like a spitball. But diesel fuel is heavier, more toxic and more persistent than oil, and the Bay is more bathtub than washing machine. The stuff doesn’t have anywhere to go.
Official response has ranged from the ludicrous (Dianne Feinstein called it a “learning experience” — like Exxon Valdez wasn’t?) to the litigious, with one attorney estimating damage claims will total “well into nine figures.” The crew, all Chinese, has been subpoenaed. After visiting the magnificently restored (before the spill) Crissy Field, which must have taken a nasty hit, Nancy Pelosi suggested it might be time to double-hull retrofit fuel tanks of container ships, a costly requirement surely to be resisted by the shipping industry. The Coast Guard, now in high dudgeon, says the incident was “preventable human error” without embracing an iota of culpability. There’s even the suggestion that Coast Guard resources have been so diverted to Homeland Security that it cannot be bothered with mere oil spills any more. But hey, couldn’t anyone at least have ordered the ship to cut engines or something?
Meanwhile, a solitary eeriness haunts Bay beaches during remarkably balmy 75-degree, sunshiny, Indian summer days. If you doubt martial law could succeed in the U.S., all you have to do is spend a little time encountering guard after guard, blockade after blockade, barring access to the Bay’s multitude of public beaches.
Like Katrina, the Minnesota bridge and San Diego fires, the Bay oil spill will fade all too soon into our domestic-disaster woodwork. But one more brick has been laid in a disturbing bulwark of flubbed response and feckless hand-wringing, with the expectation of eventual cultural amnesia and resultant whitewash.
It all may seem like institutionalized ineptitude, starting at the top with G.W. Bush and his pernicious band of neo-con merrymakers. Listening to the Coast Guard commandant on the radio gave me the deja vu of Heckuva Job Brownie and Do Not Recall Gonzales, putting on airs of genial but simple-minded folk in way over their heads.
Instead, watching Bush himself fly over the devastation of Katrina back when, it occurred to me that incompetence is the strategy. We know neo-cons hate government, that they want to, as Grover Norquist puts it, drown the baby. But were they to act like it and execute on it, they know a compassionate and democratic public would revolt. So they simply act like they just can’t do any better. They appoint political hacks to make sure all the public’s money gets given away to their lackeys, and when a real crisis hits they simply fart around. Let the levees breach and the bridges collapse and the fires rage and the oil slime. What better opportunities to show how evil, useless and unnecessary government really is?