The shipping companies responsible for the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill, which polluted San Francisco Bay and killed thousands of birds and fish, have agreed to pay $44.4 million to restore habitat and reimburse the agencies that responded to the disaster, state and federal officials announced Monday.
The settlement resolves a federal lawsuit and requires Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Ltd. to compensate local, state and federal agencies for the loss of recreational opportunities. The money will be used to improve coastal access and restore facilities, habitat and fisheries that were damaged, officials said.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said at a Treasure Island news conference that the settlement “sends a message to polluters that there is a price to pay.”
“We are seeing to it that those responsible for the spill are held accountable and that they pay their share for restoring and improving our precious natural resources and public lands,” said Salazar, who was flanked by Justice Department and other government officials, including state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Ignacia Moreno said she believes the oil spill settlement is the largest of its kind in the United States since the Oil Pollution Act was passed in 1990.
The Cosco Busan was steaming out of San Francisco Bay on Nov. 7, 2007, when it slammed into the fog-shrouded base of a Bay Bridge tower and spilled 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel oil. The plume of thick oil damaged 3,367 acres of shoreline habitat with globules of the sticky black substance.
Delay in reporting spill
The spill, which occurred in the morning, created an uproar because it wasn’t until nightfall when various agencies and authorities that could help were informed of the severity of the spill. By the time hundreds of people from cleanup organizations, agencies and wildlife conservation groups responded, strong bay currents had dispersed the sludge and fouled beaches throughout the Bay Area.
Workers attempted to save wildlife, but the death toll was large despite their efforts. An estimated 6,849 birds and between 14 and 29 percent of spawning herring that winter were killed, according to government regulators.
The lawsuit was filed by the U.S. attorney general 23 days after the spill under the Oil Pollution Act, the National Marine Sanctuaries Act, the Park System Resource Protection Act and the Clean Water Act. San Francisco and Richmond also filed suit, and numerous other agencies joined in, including the California Department of Fish and Game and the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The two shipping firms agreed earlier this year to pay 120 Bay Area commercial fishermen $3.6 million in damages.
Breakdown of funds
The plan is to spend $32.3 million of the settlement money on a variety of restoration projects, including $5 million for bird restoration, $4 million for habitat restoration and $2.5 million for fish and bay eelgrass restoration.
Federal and state trustees anticipate using $18.8 million for recreational improvements to make up for the loss of public use of the coastline during the spill. That is expected to include $9.75 million to improve coastal and bayside areas of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park and Point Reyes National Seashore.
A Draft Damage Assessment and Restoration Plan outlining the specific projects and proposals will soon be made available for public comment, officials said.
“This settlement properly compensates the public affected by the oil spill and will fund the environmental restoration and recreational projects necessary to undo the damage done by the spill,” said Moreno, who is in charge of the Justice Department’s environment and natural resources division.
Not everyone was happy with the agreement, which settled all the remaining civil claims.
“Only $5 million is going to birds, while nearly $19 million is going to developing recreational uses along our shoreline,” said Deb Self, the executive director of Baykeeper.
Spending plan criticized
The plan, she said, should focus on restoring the bay’s sensitive mud flats, marshes, rocky cliffs, lagoons and sloughs.
“These mini-ecosystems have unique biological and chemical conditions that are vital to sustain rare plants and animals and are especially important to the healthy functioning of San Francisco Bay,” Self said. “They also took the biggest hit from the Cosco Busan.”
Fleet Management was fined $10 million last year after its representatives pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of water pollution and two felony counts of filing false documents in a subsequent cover-up.
John Cota, the Cosco Busan’s pilot that fateful day, pleaded guilty to federal pollution charges in March 2009 and was sentenced to 10 months in prison. Cota was criminally negligent for taking the ship out in thick fog and ignoring danger signals, and Fleet Management was liable for failing to train the crew or notify Cota when the ship went off course, according to federal prosecutors. Fleet Management operates the ship, which is owned by Regal Stone.
The consent decree can be seen at www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.