Click photo to enlarge

The Cosco Busan leaked thousands of gallons of bunker fuel… (Gregory Urquiaga/Contra Costa Times)

Nearly a year after a Chinese freighter collided with the Bay Bridge, dumping more than 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay, Bay Area lawmakers have succeeded in passing the most sweeping oil spill reforms in California since the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

Eleven of the 13 oil spill bills introduced in Sacramento this year cleared the Legislature by the Aug. 31 deadline, according to a MediaNews analysis.

It remains unclear how many Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will sign — he hasn’t said — or how they will be affected by his promise to veto any bill sent to his desk until lawmakers approve a state budget.

But the package, which has largely escaped public attention, could usher in significant new changes in oil tanker oversight, the ability of volunteers to help clean oiled beaches and the development of more efficient cleanup equipment.

“I’m dancing on my desk. This represents a sea change in oil spill prevention and response,” said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental group based in San Francisco.

Among the main bills is Assembly Bill 2032, by Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, which authorizes the state to increase the fee charged to oil companies for all crude oil brought into California in ships and pipelines from 5 cents a barrel to 8 cents. The increase would raise $19 million a year to expand state oil spill programs. Currently, the fee is used to fund



the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), which oversees spill cleanups and safety regulations.The bill is opposed by the Western States Petroleum Association.

“These funds have always had an adequate amount of money. It has never run short,” said Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the petroleum association. “There was no compelling reason to increase the cost of providing transportation fuels for California consumers the way this legislation proposes to do it.”

On most of the bills, the oil industry remains neutral.

“It’s fair to say this package of bills is a reflection of how seriously people particularly the people of the Bay Area “… take these matters,” Hull said.

Another Hancock bill deals with volunteers.

In the days after the Cosco Busan spill, hundreds of concerned Bay Area residents descended onto beaches to help clean tarballs and to rescue oiled wildlife. But they were turned away by state and Coast Guard officials, who noted that oil is hazardous waste and they hadn’t completed training required under federal law.

“It was tragic,” Hancock said. “It was very frustrating. People were repudiated by a bureaucracy.”

Eventually, following public outcry, the agencies relented and offered classes allowing volunteers to perform some work.

Hancock’s bill, AB 2031, would require the state to set up programs to train groups such as commercial fishermen or members of the California Conservation Corps to be certified to clean beaches. Those people, in turn, could offer classes to others so that in the next oil spill, certified volunteers could help.

Among the other bills:

  • Senate Bill 1056, by state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would require cleanup crews to respond to oil spills no more than two hours after a spill in San Francisco Bay, instead of the current requirement of six hours.
  • AB 2547, by Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would require the state to offer $1 million a year in competitive grants to companies developing new technology to recover spilled oil. In the Cosco Busan spill, about 40 percent of the oil was recovered, and fog and waves hampered containment of the slick.
  • AB 2911, by Assemblywoman Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would double the maximum state civil and criminal penalties to $50,000 per incident for inland spills and $1 million for ocean spills.
  • Two other bills would increase oversight of the state Board of Pilot Commissioners, which issues licenses to the local mariners who bring ships in and out of the bay, by requiring audits and annual status reports. Questions about the board arose after the pilot of the Cosco Busan, Capt. John Cota of Petaluma, was found to have been suffering sleep apnea and taking medication that can impair judgment.”Nobody wants to go through this. Nobody wants to see their name in the paper in a negative way. Pilots here and all across the U.S. have done major safety reviews because of this,” said Capt. Peter McIsaac, executive director of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, which supports both bills.One significant measure died. AB 2411, by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, would have required tug boat escorts for ships carrying hazardous chemicals, the same as oil tankers are now required to have.

    But the bill died after the State Department of Fish and Game opposed it, saying it would cost $125,000 to hire a state employee to oversee and enforce the rules, and that defining what chemicals to regulate could prove difficult.

    Contact Paul Rogers at progers@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5045.