Protecting the Bay from a Billion-Dollar Oil Spill

Jun 7, 2019

In 2010, a pipeline burst and spilled heavy crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Response agencies tried to clean up the heavy oil but gave up after five years and over a billion dollars spent. Almost a decade later, the oil remains at the bottom of the river and the ecosystem has yet to recover.

“If a spill of heavy crude oil happened in San Francisco Bay today, the effects could be equally disastrous and irreversible if it wasn’t handled with state-of-the-art cleanup methods,” says Baykeeper attorney Ben Eichenberg. “Yet millions of gallons of heavy oil likely crisscross the Bay by tanker every year, with no effective cleanup plan for a spill.”

In undiluted form, heavy non-floating oils­—like tar sands, Venezuelan crude, Mexican Maya crude, asphalt, and coal tar—can sink quickly, smothering plants and aquatic animals.

If the spill is not addressed promptly and appropriately, these spills can be virtually impossible to remove from waterways, because existing cleanup technology focuses almost exclusively on removing oil that floats on the water’s surface.

And the risk of a destructive heavy oil spill in the Bay is growing. Oil companies are trying to significantly ramp up the refining and transport of heavy crude in the Bay and throughout California. 

Baykeeper is taking action to address this threat with new state legislation. We created Assembly Bill (AB) 936 with Assembly Member Robert Rivas and our partners at the Natural Resources Defense Council to reduce the risk of a heavy oil spill to California’s waters, shorelines, and wildlife.

The bill will increase the requirements on companies transporting these crude oils, improve monitoring, and strengthen response tools to deal with a spill.

The State Assembly passed the bill in May, and it’s now headed to the California Senate. Baykeeper and our partners will continue advocating for stronger protections to prepare for a destructive heavy oil spill in San Francisco Bay.

How AB 936 Tackles the Threat of a Spill of Heavy Sinking Oil:

1.  Oil Company Accountability. Companies that transport hazardous heavy oils should be responsible for the associated risks. AB 936 increases oil industry accountability, requiring companies to retain response companies that are specifically certified to manage non-floating crude oil spills.

2.  Transparency & Tracking. Heavy crude oil is already being transported throughout the state by rail, truck, and tanker in large quantities—but there’s little reporting of exactly how much, when, or where. AB 936 would require companies to provide advance notice of non-floating oil transport in California to allow agencies to be more prepared for a spill.

3.  Better Cleanup Tools. Currently, the equipment needed to manage a heavy crude spill in the Bay doesn’t have to be readily available locally or even in the state. AB 936 requires equipment for responding to non-floating oil spills to be pre-positioned in California for rapid response. And it requires training for response agencies on the technology of non-floating oil spill management and response.

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