After 30 years, tankers safer but spills still a threat

The Associated Press
Friday January 19, 2001


SAN FRANCISCO — The icy waters of San Francisco Bay complete a stunning vista that includes wild islands, a famous bridge and a sparkling skyline. 

Exactly 30 years ago, though, those waters were fouled when two oil tankers, shrouded in fog, collided at night and spilled more than 800,000 gallons of thick goo. 

It was an environmental disaster that became one of the driving forces for navigation safety and regulations that have made tankers safer and led to a reduction in oil spills along the nation’s waterways. 

But oil spills remain a threat, especially to the health of the bay. 

“These regulations that took place in 1972 and the strengthening of those in 1990 has definitely reduced the danger of oil spills,” said David Schmidt, a writer and environmental historian with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

“But in San Francisco Bay, where you have a lot of ships going through a very narrow corridor, sometimes in complete darkness and heavy fog, an accident could happen at any time. We’re not in the clear.” 

Following the Jan. 19, 1971, collision of the two Standard Oil tankers, the Oregon Standard and the Arizona Standard, the U.S. Coast Guard implemented the vessel traffic system, a way of monitoring where ships are and where they are planning to go. 

The system, which is used in a number of nations, uses radar, cameras and civilian and military controllers to get the information to the vessels. 

The vessel traffic system was first put into place in the United States in 1973 as a result of the San Francisco crash. It is now used all along the nation’s coastlines. 

Certain ships, including oil tankers, are required by federal law to participate in the system and to be tuned into the same frequency so they can give and receive information from the area. 

Transmitting information was a problem in the 1971 crash, said Lt. Dawn Black, a Coast Guard operations officer. At the time, a voluntary, experimental vessel traffic system, called the Harbor Advisory Radar Project, was being tried out in the San Francisco Bay. 

“They collided, and they were actually being watched by the HARP,” she said. “Because there was no backing by law, they didn’t have to participate; they didn’t even have to be on the same channel. So we actually, literally watched the two come together – there was nothing we could do. 

“Part of the problem was nobody could get in touch with the vessels,” Black added. “They literally did not see each other coming.” 

The vessel traffic system was financed through the Ports & Waterways Safety Act of 1972. An oil spill regulation, the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasures regulation, was included in the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, which later became the Clean Water Act. 

The SPCC control allowed the regulation of the discharge of oil from vessels and onshore and offshore facilities, and the establishment and enforcement of rules for procedures and equipment to prevent or contain spills. 

The 1971 collision resulted in about 840,000 gallons of partially refined oil covering the water. The heavy oil prevented waves from crashing on the shore, said Peter Warshall, a biologist who helped clean up the spill. 

“It floated on top of the surface of the water, kind of like heavy molasses, then it solidified in the water and was globby, like asphalt,” he said. “It looked like a parking lot.” 

People rigged booms to keep the oil out of a lagoon wildlife sanctuary, and at a makeshift rescue center volunteers tried to figure out how to save birds coated with oil. 

“In 1971, there were no real methods for cleaning up oil,” Warshall said. “People started literally experimenting on what might be done. 

“During that process we learned how to finally take care of birds,” he added. “We found out you had to cover the bird in cornmeal and wash the cornmeal out with mineral oil. The problem was the birds then froze to death. The hard part to learn was you had to hold a bird inside a tub of water, and then it would start to preen itself again and spread its own oil over its body.” 

About 7,000 birds were harmed by the spill. Volunteers tried to save about 4,300, and of those, more than 3,400 died. 

Still, Warshall said, that’s better than the birds affected by the 1969 spill in the Santa Barbara Channel, when birds were just left to die. During that spill, one of the worst off the California coast, more than 3 million gallons of crude oil flowed out of cracks in the channel floor caused by oil drilling. 

Although tankers are now much safer than in 1971, disasters still threaten. The Neptune Dorado, a Singapore-registered tanker that was to unload 580,000 barrels of Australian crude oil at the Tosco Refinery in Rodeo, a city northeast of San Francisco, was stopped in September after oil was found leaking into the ship’s ballast tanks. 

The leaks prompted fears of an explosion, and the captain was arrested and charged with ordering the crew to falsify ship logs. 

Also, rocks below the surface of the water pose a danger to vessels traveling through the bay, and tankers can be seen zigzagging to avoid them. 

The London-based International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation says the number of major spills worldwide has decreased significantly in the last three decades. There were 24 in 1970 and the high was in 1979, when there were 34. In 1999, there were five, according to the ITOPF. 

The 1971 spill was not the biggest in San Francisco Bay history. That happened in 1937, when an oil tanker hit a passenger steamer and spilled 2.73 million gallons a mile west of the Golden Gate Bridge. An attempt was made to pump out some of the oil still in the tanker, but a storm about two weeks later sent the whole thing into the ocean. 

About 22,000 birds are believed to have died in that spill, and no effort was made to rescue them. In fact, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals patrolled the oily beaches for birds and killed them to prevent them from dying slow deaths. 

One of the worst tanker spills in the United States was the Exxon Valdez spill, which dumped more than 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.