Public Payback: Restoration in the Wake of the Cosco Busan Oil Spill

It’s been almost eight years since the Cosco Busan tanker clipped the Bay Bridge on a foggy November morning and dumped more than 53,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay. Four years after the spill, the government reached a $44.4 million settlement with the ship’s owners and operators; almost three-quarters of that amount was earmarked to restore damages to natural resources, with the remainder going toward response costs and penalties. After all this time, some of those restoration projects are just getting underway, while others are still in development. With such a long lag time between the spill and reparations, even the most devoted conservationist can lose interest in the outcome. But with so much money at stake, it pays for everyone to keep paying attention.

Of the $32.3 million in settlement funds allocated for restoration, $18.8 million was set aside to compensate for human losses of natural resources. The rest targeted birds ($5 million), fish and eelgrass ($2.5 million), and shoreline habitat ($4 million), with $2 million tabbed for administrative and project oversight costs.

“It’s an unfortunate irony,” said Carol Bach, who monitors a settlement-funded project at Heron’s Head Park as part of her job as an environmental manager for the Port of San Francisco. “You would never wish for an oil spill to happen, and nothing that we can do after the fact truly makes up for the damage that was done. But on the flip side, these settlements give us the opportunity to do environmental work that probably wouldn’t get funded otherwise.”

The painstaking process of assessing damage from the oil spill — habitat destruction, the death of more than 6,000 birds, and losses to other marine life — were detailed in a report filed by six federal and state agencies authorized to act on behalf of the public. Representatives from these agencies comprise a Trustee Council charged with managing and administering restoration funds.

Using established formulas, the agencies translated damages into dollar amounts. Among those accounts, the natural resource losses for people were tallied: What was the value of missed fishing trips, surfing sessions, or dog walks on a favorite beach? (A few answers from the report: $78 per trip for most boat trips, $52 per trip for dragon boating, $50 per trip for boat-based fishing, and $38 for shore-based fishing.)

When it came time to divvy up the money, the spill demographics were factored in: 45 percent of the oil damage hit San Mateo County, 26 percent was in the East Bay, 17 percent in Marin County, 11 percent in San Francisco County, and 1 percent elsewhere. The funds were further portioned out between lands managed by the National Park Service (NPS) and lands managed by other jurisdictions.

“Early on, it was clear that we needed to know not only the dollar amount of the damages, but also the distribution of those impacts. So, we did our best to calculate and match the location of the harm to distribution of the settlement funds,” said Matt Zafonte, a California Department of Fish and Game economist and an alternate representative for the Trustee Council.

Ultimately, the compensation for human recreation losses went four main ways: $9.746 million to NPS, $7.26 million to Bay Area counties outside of San Francisco, $1.125 to non-NPS lands in the City and County of San Francisco, and $669,000 to the City of Richmond. Collectively, this money has helped complete more than 40 open space and recreation projects, with more still to come.

With almost $10 million available to redress recreation losses in San Francisco and Marin counties, NPS plunked down $2 million for improvements at Muir Beach. They also crossed a lot of smaller projects off their to-do list, including a set of new stairs at Rodeo Beach, animal-proof trash bins for some areas, and seawall repairs at Ocean Beach. But there’s still a little over $2 million to spend, said Kristen Ward, a wetland ecologist for NPS and a Trustee Council alternate representative. Next, the focus is on San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, where “a huge number of visitors every year” have taken their toll on walkways. Just down the shoreline at Crissy Field, the rest of the oil spill money might also be used to improve the Golden Gate Promenade or Torpedo Wharf.

“There’s lots of deserving projects, and lots of ways these funds could have been spent,” said Ward. “We looked at providing a range of recreation benefits, and being able to benefit the public sooner rather than later, with a high likelihood of success.”

The City and County of San Francisco plans to use about half of their $1.125 million award to stabilize the eroding shoreline at Heron’s Head Park. Although oil never contaminated that southern waterfront, the intertidal ponds are prime roosting habitat for birds. The $665,000 set aside for this project, slated to start in August, should cover feasibility, design development, and permitting — enough to get the shoreline “shovel ready” for the construction phase. If possible, a “living shoreline” using materials such as wood and gravel could create a more natural boundary between the land and water.

“It’s not a sexy project,” Bach said about the shoreline plans. “But it is a valuable contribution toward an important open space and habitat preservation project.”

The rest of that award will go toward improvements at the India Basin Small Boating Complex.

A competitive grant process was put in place to allocate settlement money for the Bay Area counties. In many instances, these awards were a chance for communities to leverage other monies and address projects languishing for lack of funds.

The City of Richmond, for example, used almost a half million dollars of their $669,000 settlement to close two gaps in the San Francisco Bay Trail, one at the historic Kaiser Shipyard 3 site at Point Potrero and the other near the Richmond Plunge swimming pool. The remaining money was spent on the Marina Bay Trail ($65,000), and improvements at Point Molate Beach Park ($115,000).

In the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), the oil money made it possible to put $1.3 million toward the Albany Beach restoration project, which began this summer. Another award of $570,000, over a four-year span, boosted recreational programs at the Tidewater Boating Center based in East Oakland. And $300,000 went to improve the fishing pier at Point Pinole Regional Shoreline.

“Clearly the goal isn’t to get money from oil spills to do these projects,” said Robert Doyle, EBRPD general manager. “But if it does happen again, it’s important to have a way to clean up the natural resources side and give the public, whose parks and beaches have been impacted, an opportunity to be made whole, too.”

Elizabeth Devitt covers open space for the Monitor.