San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Endangers Wildlife, Brings Back Memories Of 1971 Standard Oil Spill

Early Friday morning wind storms overturned a barge near Yerba Buena Island, tumbling barrels of diesel fuel into the beloved San Francisco Bay. The freight barge Vengeance capsized and sank shortly after midnight, according to Coast Guard representative Sarah Wilson. Fortunately, no hands were aboard when the vessel and a crane went down in gale force winds several hours before sunrise. When 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel and several hundred gallons of lubricating oil mix it up with 40 mph winds, the potential for environmental disaster is real.

Although few knew her name, the barge known as Vengeance was a routine sight to commuters who travel the span of the Bay Bridge from San Francisco to Oakland. Under contract to Bay Area Rapid Transit, the 112-foot barge with crane moored at Treasure Island was used by corrosion prevention specialists and maintenance crews who worked on the underwater tunnel that shuttles rail passengers between Oakland and San Francisco.

At least she did until she sank on April 7, 2017, at 12:20 a.m.

Maintenance barge down with thousands of gallons of fuel and oil aboard

At the time of this writing, it is not known precisely why the Vengeance went down. What is known is that the vessel was carrying at least 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel when gale force squalls forced her to founder in the murky waters of San Francisco Bay. BART representative Alicia Trost noted that the Vengeance was under contract with Bay Area Rapid Transit and was indeed carrying thousands of gallons of fuel and oil when she sank before sunrise Friday morning. This was confirmed by the San Francisco Gate.

Privately owned environmental rescue company National Response Corporation Emergency Services acted quickly to contain the area around the sunken barge and crane as soon as daylight confirmed the havoc wrought by robust winds that battered the Bay Area overnight. U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Adam Stanton remarked that a retinue of responders deployed some 3,000 feet of boom barrier above and around the sunken barge to corral the spill. Stanton promised the public that further containment and cleanup strategies are currently underway.

Stanton also assured the public that the 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel that sank or floated or who knows what during this week’s windstorms were contained in barrels, not within the barge’s tanks. Does this make anyone feel better? Not really.

San Francisco Bay wildlife not yet visibly affected by oil spill. This time.

To Bay Area residents, California beach lovers, and wildlife protectors who were there, the San Francisco Bay oil disaster of ’71 is one of those chaotic messes a person just doesn’t forget.

The 1971 San Francisco oil spill started when two Standard Oil tankers that should have passed in the night failed to do so on January 18. According to the San Francisco’s Western Neighborhoods Project Outside Lands publication, neither ship utilized radar properly nor did they adhere to the correct navigational practice of always steering to starboard when approaching another vessel. On that foggy night, the Arizona Standard was coming and Oregon Standard was going. Witnesses said that one or both vessels may have been underway too fast. Each vessel carried more than 100,000 gallons of crude or refined fuel. Most of that oil wound up in San Francisco Bay and on beaches up and down the California coast.

The Western Field Ornithologists publication, Western Birds Volume 3, Number 2 describes the 1971 oil spill as devastating to local shorebird populations. Tides moved the spill from the bay entrance to the coast where currents spread the spill as far north as Drake’s Bay Point and as far south as Point Año Nuevo, killing countless seabirds along the way.

Not all of the oil that bled from gashes in the damaged vessels managed to make it out to sea. Some fuel meandered into the Bay and contaminated beaches at Angel Island, Alcatraz, Berkeley, Tiburon, and Sausalito. Hippie volunteers pulled together with “hardhats” from Standard Oil to set up bird cleanup rescue stations at the Family Dog building on the Great Highway and workers scrubbed oily loons with cornmeal in the basement beneath the lion cages at the San Francisco Zoo. All told, hundreds of volunteers worked at dozens of cleaning stations in Bolinas, Tiburon, Pacifica, and other waterfront communities throughout the Bay Area. KSAN radio distributed pamphlets instructing volunteers in the best practices of bird cleaning.

[Image by Justin Sullivan / Getty Images]

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife estimated the number of oiled and deceased birds discovered on beaches from Tomales Bay to Santa Cruz after the 1971 spill at around 7,000. The Western Field Ornithologists alliance notes that as staggering as this number is, it represents a mere fraction of the actual death toll, as official mortality counts cannot be done on birds that wash out to sea or sink beneath the surface. Long-necked, needle billed Western Grebes, and white-winged coastal scoter ducks were among the 26 species of waterfowl adversely affected by the San Francisco oil spill of 1971.

The Alameda Patch reminds readers who observe oiled waterfowl or wildlife to resist the urge to handle the animals before calling (877)UCD-OWCN.

[Featured Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]

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