Oil spills, volunteers, and the San Francisco Bay Area

volunteer canyon, marin county

Today beaches near the Golden Gate are closed as a noxious oil spill is washing up against the shore. A large South Korean-based Hanjin container ship struck one of the supports of the Bay Bridge and released oil into the bay from a damaged tank. According to Caltrans engineers the bridge got the better of the collision and suffered no significant damage. The cause of the crash is a mystery, since the bridge is pretty easy to spot by eye or radar, even in heavy fog. The ship even had a local pilot aboard. We are still waiting to learn the extent of the environmental damage.

The most famous oil spill on the bay occurred on January 19, 197. On that date, two oil tankers, the Arizona Standard and a sister ship, the Oregon Standard, collided in the bay. Winds and currents drove the resulting spill north toward Bolinas Lagoon in Marin County. As the Point Reyes Light recalls, “The collision ripped open six of the Oregon’s 26 fuel oil compartments, dumping 840,000 gallons of oil into the bay — more than half of which ended up on beaches around the Bay Area. The spill killed roughly 20,000 birds and some seven million marine organisms, according to Bay Area researchers.”

What was most remarkable about the event was the rallying of community support for the embattled beaches. The community of Bolinas quickly rallied. Sculptor Tom D’Onofrio shared his recollections with the Light:

Drawing on his days at a logging camp in the Adirondacks, D’Onofrio felt that stringing a boom — a row of logs — across the lagoon’s narrow mouth might provide a decent barrier, and that hay could be used to soak up oil.

“It was a crude plan, but this was instantaneous thinking,” the sculptor said.

He approached neighbor John Armstrong, a boatbuilder with many logs on his property, and persuaded him to help with the boom’s construction.

D’Onofrio then drove down to Scowley’s, the local cafe and hangout (now site of the Kaleidoscope women’s craft collective) to enlist manpower.

“I went into Scowley’s and jumped on a counter and yelled, ‘This is what’s happened: there’s oil offshore and it’s coming this way,'” D’Onofrio recalled. “‘We need every able-bodied man, woman, and big child. Can we count on you?’ And everyone there yelled, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it!'” By the time the band of volunteers reached the beach, hundreds of residents had converged at the end of Wharf Road to help.

While many birds were lost a large number were also saved, and the actions of the volunteers were inspiring. A nearby canyon was renamed Volunteer Canyon in commemoration of their efforts. It is home now to an Audubon center, and is the nesting place for egrets and blue herons. The image shows a group of birders enjoying the canyon, whose preservation is due in part to the sense of community that resulted from the mobilization of the volunteers.

On their own: In Bolinas, residents struggle to keep fragile lagoon safe.
The residents were angry that such important work was left to amateurs while an international cleanup effort is under way only a few miles away.”

← Previous post

Next post →


  1. The article in today’s Chon says that the spill is 58,000 gallons; that’s got to have a major negative impact on birds and the marine denizens of the bay. What a mess!

  2. So far I have heard no explanation for how this happened. How can a huge vessel like this ram right into one of our bridges?

  3. Er..Maybe the captain was drunk? Failed his driving test? Navigating without a proper license? What damn good does it do to the dead fish and animals, much less the pollution in the bay if the owners are “fully insured.” Yes, sure and yet, will they pay for the clean up or will this drag in the courts for years and years. We are courting ecological catastrophe on so many fronts on Planet Earth; each disaster just brings us one step closer.

    This is the quote from the SF Chron – it seems to me that this is yet another instance of pilot who should have been sacked ages ago. But, alas, there are far too many of these “incidents.” Who regulates the sea anyway? Is this yet another instance where our current administration has cut an agency to the bone or gutted it or given the leadership to yet another bozo?

    “State Pilot Commission records show that Capt. John Cota, who was in charge of navigating the Cosco Busan when it hit the bridge, has been involved in a number of ship-handling incidents and was reprimanded last year for errors in judgment when he ran a ship aground near Antioch.

    Cota, 59, is a master mariner, and veteran of 26 years as a ship pilot. He was involved in four “incidents” over the past 14 years and on several other occasions was “counseled” for perceived mistakes in ship handling.

    The company that owns the Cosco Busan said it would make good on whatever responsibility it had in the disaster. Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for MTI Network, a Stamford, Conn., a firm that handles crisis management for the shipping industry, said the ship’s owner – Regal Stone Ltd. of Hong Kong – “is stepping up to the plate. It’s their ship. They own it. It’s fully insured.”

  4. That is very sad news. This spill has turned out to be much worse than it appeared from the first reports.

  5. Here’s an update from SF Fist: Apparently the state’s having difficulty determining exactly who owns the vessel, so presumably the real owners will reveal themselves if Arnold tries to steal it. Okay, maybe that’s worth a shot — but what if the owners actually WANT to get rid of the boat, and let the state go ahead and seize it? What do we do with it once it’s ours? So much for the PR that the owners put out that they are “insured and will pay for the clean up.”

  6. It appears that you are right that this is an area that need more or better regulation.