Although as much as 75 percent of the total oil spills in the state occur on inland waters, there are currently no penalties and a severely limited response structure.
California State Representative Lois Wolk is working to change this with two bills she has introduced to the state assembly.
“Right now no agency is responsible for command authority,” Wolk said. “There are civil and criminal penalties for marine spills, but they don’t apply to inland spills, which are more common.”
Josh Basofin, a California representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a cosponsor of the bills, also said there is no command structure for inland oil spill response.
“There’s a major gap in the authority of the oil spill prevention and response, in that they have an authority structure and penalties for marine spills but not inland spills,” Basofin said.
The new legislation stems from the Cosco Busan spill in the San Francisco Bay in November 2007, which resulted when a freighter struck the Bay Bridge and began leaking fuel.
“One of the reactions to this most recent oil spill was that people realized there’s not a comprehensive response to the needs of the wildlife,” Basofin said.
The two bills are only part of a flurry of oil spill reform bills introduced by the Assembly Democrats.
“It’s a packet of legislation about oil spill response that came out of the Cosco Busan spill,” Wolk said. “But when we set about this, what we learned was that there are more inland spills and that there isn’t a good system to respond to this in place yet.”
If the bills become law, they will allocate more funding to inland oil spill response from existing oil taxes and create training and staffing opportunities at response agencies. The bills will also affirm inland spill response under the purview of the State Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, a branch of the California Department of Fish and Game, and create legal penalties for inland spills equal to those for marine spills.
“Right now we have a lack of personnel and lack of resources,” said Carol Singleton, spokesperson for the OSPR. “We don’t have the people that can be committed to stay on the scene and see the cleanup go through.”
There are hundreds of spills every year and not all of them are oil spills. The spills can be many things, including milk, wine, shampoo and construction sediment, Singleton said.
“There’s so many that we can’t respond to all of them,” she said.
In January, a tanker truck spilled 4,000 gallons of diesel fuel on Highway 199. The fuel leaked into nearby Smith River and OSPR personnel were called on to set aside their other work to oversee cleanup efforts.
Singleton said if Wolk’s bill were in place, there would have been enough resources so that all needs could be met.
“One of the obstacles with the Cosco Busan spill was that a lot of volunteers hadn’t received hazardous materials training, which is a state requirement for oil spill response. It’s really necessary to have a comprehensive rescue program of oiled wildlife,” Basofin said.
He cited the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, a part of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, as an organization that could gain an increased capacity as a result of the legislation.
However, Basofin said he was concerned that the new legislation might not be enough.
“The new bills will help, but there are fundamental problems that still exist. One of them is the infrastructure problem. We need to fix our pipelines and work on better technology to prevent and respond to spills,” Basofin said. “These two bills help, but to get to the root of the problem we need better facilities and better transportation and eventually get to a point where we’re not using oil.”
As for where the bills stand now, Wolk said they are still being passed through committees.
“One needs to be heard by the Assembly, Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, and the other will be going before the Assembly Judiciary Committee next,” Wolk said. “They have to go through the Appropriations Committee, and then they will go to the floor of the Assembly, and all of this must happen before August.”
Aggie Staff Writer JEREMY OGUL contributed to this article.
J. DANA STUSTER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.