Picking Up M.O.O.P. (Misplaced OIL On the Playa)

Update: The SF Bay Guardian just printed an editorial that voices some of my concerns.

Last Wednesday morning, a large cargo ship named the Cosco Busan, hit the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge (the first time ever that a ship hit the span). At first, reports stated that the ship’s fuel tanks had been ripped open and only a few hundred gallons of bunker oil had leaked into the Bay. I didn’t think much of the small spill, having read about explosions at the Richmond oil refineries over the years as well as other small disasters in the region (Hunters Point being one of the big small disasters).

By Friday, headlines told a different story. About 60,000 gallons of the fuel had actually gushed into the bay in about 30 minutes. Clean up procedures were slow to start; the Chronicle recently reported that the first five “skimmer” boats responded to the spill over 2 1/2 hours after the last gallon leaked out of the busted ship hull. By almost 5 PM Wednesday, the Coast Guard finally realized the extent of the spill, so a whole day was wasted just figuring out what had happened.

Friday night, I soaked in the Chronicle’s online coverage. Saving the oily birds took dramatic lead, as did the Google map of all the oil in the bay. The oil hit Kirby Cove in Marin, surrounded Alcatraz, ended up on the shores of Angel Island, and was headed out into the Pacific. True to form, Bay Area citizens saw holes in the response and attempted to form their own clean up crews on beaches in different counties. Police and Park Rangers held them off, frustrating citizens who felt like they needed to help clean up as soon a possible.

Announcements for a Saturday morning informational meeting got posted, emailed, and linked across the Internet. If one just glanced at the details, they’d think that they were going to a volunteer orientation. Reading the itinerary clearly showed that the meeting was a few PowerPoint presentations on what was being done to clean up the spill, the oiled animals, and then there would be a sign up for actual volunteer training.

I scoffed when I read that the meeting was about signing up for another meeting, THREE days after the spill. I decided to hit the last part of that meeting at the Bill Graham Auditorium, thinking that there’d be press releases, flyers, etc. on a table where I could plug in on Sunday (I had to work at the Green Festival which was being held in SoMa this weekend). Locking my bike up about 30 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to end, it looked over. People that left the elevators seemed to be upset. Up in a fourth floor conference room, a Spokesperson for the Sheriff’s office stood surrounded by citizens asking her questions. National Parks reps and other government officials stood in their own circles of upset people. The volunteers where just filling out forms to get put on an email list, so I didn’t bother giving my information to add to the pile.

I picked up bits and pieces of the conversations and asked a few people how the meeting went. One journalist asked me what I thought about the meeting and I told her that I came late to get printed information. There wasn’t any! I asked the journalist what I missed and she simply said “wait and you can volunteer later.” A few other people said the same thing.

Over at the Green Festival, conversation buzzed about what was going down with the spill recovery. The Feds had taken control of the response and the owners of the Cosco Busan were responsible for hiring the O’Brien’s Group to begin the clean up. Word floated around the hall that the Feds turned down the huge early volunteer response, which was offered by local governments. The Surfrider Foundation and Baykeeper had begun to unofficially endorse the DIY clean up effort, stressing that it was dangerous work and potentially harmful to one’s health. One conversation I had revolved around what had gone wrong: early report wasn’t a big deal, the Coast Guard showed up late and discovered it was a big deal, communication broke down somewhere, and four days later things had turned into a mess.

Nothing happened on the volunteer side Sunday. Laura and I biked to the Embarcadero and over to the Wharf area. Stopping along the way, there was little indication that a spill had happened. Tourists soaked in the Bush Man, ate chowder in bread bowls, and laughed at the seals. We saw booms set up along Pier 40 and watched a contract crew in plastic jumpsuits push a barge of oil debris out of the area. Some oil seemed to have collected around the ferries, but I didn’t know what bunker oil looked like so had no idea if that was from the spill.

Online later that night, Baykeeper announced a government-sponsored volunteer training course for Monday morning near the SF Zoo. After the 4 hour OSHA course, and lunch, volunteers would be bussed to Ocean Beach and get to collect oil. I set my alarm for 6:30 knowing that it’d take a while to get out there on MUNI.

MUNI actually got me there on time! So glad that we have NextMuni to time the trips with. Many agencies where there: EPA, Sheriff’s Dept, Golden Gate Park Rangers, the SF Public Utilities Commission, CA Dept. of Fish and Game, NERT, and a few others. Supervisor Fiona Ma and Mayor Gavin Newsom spoke briefly between PowerPoint presentations that told us what bunker fuel was, how it could be dangerous, and what and how we would all suit up. “Upwind and Uphill” was the major lesson to learn to avoid potentially harmful contact with the “goop.” Don’t eat it, breathe the vapors, and try not to get it on your skin.

Citizen frustrations took voice via questions to the Fish and Game rep who gave most of the presentations. One man who looked like a surfer said that he’d been down to Ocean Beach to clean up illegally and that the vapors of the fuel necessitated our need for respiration devices. The Fish and Game rep countered that that would only happen if we took a 40 hour course and got properly fitted for a device, adding that the Feds wouldn’t let volunteers in a toxic area. “What about 9-11?” the surfer countered, and many in the audience groaned at the time theft of the discourse. “There was a contracted clean up crew there and they had masks on!” As another government rep took him aside to discuss it with him, the audience urged the “training” to continue. The surfer eventually left before the training was completed.

As Gavin spoke, he acknowledged volunteer frustrations. “Who’s to blame?” shouted a woman. “I don’t want to point fingers,” Gavin answered. “Point fingers!” she shouted back. “Let’s get this training over with so you can start cleaning up, and we’ll point fingers later!” Gavin ended with general applause from the audience.

During a break, I ran into another grass roots activist that I knew. She had showed up to Ocean Beach on Sunday with friends to clean up. I asked her about toxicity and danger and she didn’t think it was too bad. She did have a plastic jump suit on with rubber gloves and said that she saw one man with latex gloves on (bad idea!) and brown oily hands (not safe!). Like all of us, she was over the slow uncoordinated response to this horrible environmental disaster.

During lunch, a Chronicle reporter interviewed me. I didn’t have much to say but told her I’d come to get good information on just what bunker fuel was. “All petroleum is bad, so I wanted to know what makes this spill dangerous.” I showed her my plastic booties (we were given the plastic jumpsuit, booties, and two layers of gloves for the Ocean Beach clean up) and made her laugh. She moved on and we then broke up into teams and took a MUNI bus to Ocean Beach.

I was with team 10 along with about five SF PUC employees (on the clock) and ten or twelve other volunteers. We ended up getting a special detail within the habitat of the endangered snowy plover, so two Rangers with binoculars tagged along and told us how to keep still if the birds crossed our paths. We spread out along the part of beach that had just seen high tide and instantly found tiny coin-size bits of oil all along the beach. I started out on my knees, scooping oily bits of sand, sticky feathers, ocean debris with oil splotches.

Just like picking up M.O.O.P (Misplaced Objects On the Playa or Matter Out Of Place) at Burning Man, one of my favorite volunteer tasks in Black Rock City, I found the groove of the manual task of picking up tiny bits of litter. Eventually, I realized that the other volunteers had passed me by, so I had to miss some of the bits of oil to keep up with the crew. In just about 100 to 200 yards, my partner and I had a heavy sack of mostly oily sand, with some ocean grass and debris that had oil on them. Hundreds of other jumpsuited volunteers ended up the same way: oily with a bag of oily beach.

Ocean Beach wasn’t closed for some reason. Untrained citizens with scoops, toy shovels, buckets and wastebaskets worked with us in the snowy plover habitat, and no one stopped them (technically they’re breaking the law and can face fines and arrest). Joggers and dog walkers passed us. Surfers continued to hit the waves. Tourists snapped photos of us. A Surfrider volunteer had made signs for each of the stairwells down to the beach. The stencil on the side facing the stairs said “Hazard” and cautioned person and animal who walked and swam on this beach. The back of the sign had a stencil that said “Kill the Spill.”

During my MOOP detail, foot and tire prints pushed the oil into the sand, making it flat, sandy, and harder to find. Usually the oil sat along lines in the sand where the tide had hit and receded, looking dark black and shining in the wonderful sunshine. It was everywhere at some places and no where at others. One person in our crew said that Baker Beach was worse but police had kept her and a few others from going down there to clean it up on Sunday. The cop even took their cleaning supplies.

Since I took the course today, I have the official ID that says I’m a “Disaster Service Worker Volunteer.” After signing an oath to protect and defend the constitution (something I can actually agree with but don’t think is every really done in wars) and getting my photo taken (I look like a felon), I can now go to designated volunteer clean up areas and get the equipment to stay clean while working. I will bring a tiny scoop or scraper though (you’re technically supposed to throw everything that touches oil away) and NOT throw it away.

As for just cleaning up the gunk without the official OK, my only advice is to not breath it (smells like asphalt or sulper/eggs) or get it on you. As we wound down from a few hours of cleaning and were preparing to De-Con (i.e., take off our oily jumpsuits), a family came over to ask us if it was OK for their young son to play on the beach. No we told them, but they didn’t care. “We live in LA, with oil rigs right off the beaches. There’s always oil in the sand down there.”

Putting it into that perspective opens a whole new discussion about how screwed up the whole oil industry is. Add that angle to the angles that exist across the world (Nigeria, Venezuela, Iraq, the recent huge spill in the Black Sea, etc.) and the tiny MOOP oil that I picked up today is just a drop in the pool of oil-based environmental destruction happening all over.