Baykeeper Update

Update on Oily Sheens in the Bay

Last week, two mysterious oily sheens appeared in San Pablo Bay, the northern area of San Francisco Bay. One was around 40 feet wide and a mile long, large enough to cause ferry operators to temporarily halt service. The other surrounded an oil tanker docked at the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo.

Baykeeper has been watchdogging the agencies that responded to the sheens and monitoring the situation. Thankfully, there have been no reports of oiled or injured wildlife and no reports of oil reaching shorelines or wetlands. Responders placed floating booms around the sheen near the vessel to contain the oil and conduct mechanical tests to check the tanker for leaks. The Phillips 66 refinery deployed reserve response boats to skim oil from the water, however, the sheen was so thin that removing the oil from the water was not successful.

The Coast Guard has not yet identified the source of the sheens. The refinery waited 10 hours to report the spill, which may have hindered the investigation. The oily substance appears to have spread and evaporated and is no longer visible on the water. Before the oil dispersed, the agencies collected samples of the substance and are now running tests to identify it and to see if it matches either the fuel carried by the oil tanker or the fuel within the Phillips 66 refinery. The Coast Guard required both the vessel and the facility to conduct a mass-balance analysis. This analysis determines whether any fuel is missing from either’s inventory. It showed that no significant amount was missing from either the oil tanker or the refinery.

The night before the oily sheens appeared, hundreds of Vallejo residents called 911 and showed up at emergency rooms, reporting a strong, foul odor that interfered with breathing. Since then, officials have been unable to determine whether the sheens were related to the foul-smelling air in Vallejo.

The Coast Guard plans to finish testing the samples in order to try to identify the substance that caused the sheens. Baykeeper will keep an eye on the test results and also stay on alert for any signs of longer-term damage to the Bay or wildlife caused by these oily sheens. If you have any information to report about the source of the sheens or want to report harm from the sheens to the Bay or to wildlife, please call Baykeeper’s pollution hotline at 1-800-KEEP-BAY, e-mail hotline@baykeeper.org, or click here.