Dead Sea

An unpublished study shows the surprisingly lethal effects of the Cosco Busan oil spill. Why are government scientists helping the ship's owner keep it a secret?

In this article, SF Weekly staff writer Peter Jamison reports:

• The groundbreaking results of a previously undisclosed government report on the extreme danger posed to fish by the 2007 Cosco Busan oil spill — and the document’s importance as a precedent for shipping-industry polluters.

• That federal and state scientists concealed their findings from the public, even as they shared them with the companies that control the Cosco Busan.

• That the new report indicates the heavy fuel spilled into San Francisco Bay causes much higher death rates and birth defects in fish — including twisted spines, misshapen hearts, and eyes dissolved in their sockets — than the crude oil spilled in 1989 by the Exxon Valdez.

• That no herring returned to spawn in 2009 at observed sites polluted by the Cosco Busan, though more than a year had passed since the oil spill.

• The surprising amount of influence polluters have over government officials under the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 — including the ability to plan, oversee, and interpret research into how much environmental damage was caused by oil spills.

On the morning of Nov. 7, 2007, the Cosco Busan, a 900-foot container ship bound for South Korea, smashed into a tower below the western span of the Bay Bridge. The accident left a 212-foot gash in the hull of the Chinese-crewed freighter, tearing open two of its fuel tanks and spilling more than 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. The substance that leaked from the Cosco Busan, known as bunker fuel, is a dense and highly toxic distillate of the petroleum normally involved in oil spills, and it soon became apparent that the environmental toll of the crash would be severe.

Some of that damage was easy to see. According to the latest estimates from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, close to 7,000 birds — including ducks, cormorants, loons, and pelicans — probably died as a result of the oil spill. Once doused in bunker fuel, which is nearly as heavy as tar, birds lose their natural waterproofing, causing many to succumb to hypothermia. Photographs and video footage of bright-eyed waterfowl with glistening black bodies are among the more iconic images attached to the Cosco Busan disaster.

But these disturbing pictures tell only a small part of the story. Records of federal and state scientific research, obtained by SF Weekly through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and California Public Records Act requests, indicate that some of the most far-reaching ecological impacts of the spill have yet to be revealed to the public. The research, performed during 2008 and 2009 on San Francisco Bay and at the Bodega Marine Laboratory on the Sonoma coast, was done by scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of California. They discovered that the Busan's bunker fuel had an unexpectedly deadly effect on another vital and populous part of the bay's ecosystem: fish.

The report represents a milestone in scientists' understanding of the lethality of bunker fuel, which is used to power cargo ships all over the world. It reveals that even small amounts of it can have a devastating effect on recently spawned fish, causing severe birth defects — blindness, twisted backbones, misshapen hearts — or outright death. When exposed to a sufficient quantity of the oil, the study found, fish embryos simply withered and died in their eggs.

The report also revealed that Pacific herring — the species researchers focused on — had not returned to spawn at any of the oil-polluted locations monitored by scientists, though more than a year had passed since the Cosco Busan crash.

That might help explain a marked drop in the species' population that led the California Fish and Game Commission, in September, to cancel the herring season for the first time in the commercial fleet's 150-year history. The closure has been a serious blow to herring fishermen, who make up one of the last economically viable fisheries on San Francisco Bay. (While herring is no longer a popular menu item in the U.S., its roe fetches a high price in Japan, where it is sold as a delicacy called kazunoko.)

But the significance of the research extends well beyond one species. Researchers chose to study herring because of their similarity to other types of fish and importance as a food source for various kinds of animals. As Karen Garrison of the Natural Resources Defense Council put it, herring are "a barometer for the health of San Francisco Bay."

The report could have a broader impact on environmental law and the shipping industry, scientists say, because of its potential to establish a stricter standard for judging the severity of oil spills. "It sets a totally new bar for what can cause damage in herring," said Mark Myers, a pathologist at NOAA's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "It's not just this particular incident. It's the precedent it sets."

Read the full government report on the toxicity of Cosco Busan bunker fuel.
Read criticisms of the report from shipping company consultants.

The surprisingly small amounts of bunker fuel that have been shown to cause mutations or death in fish could increase shipping companies' liability when freighters crash and leak their fuel in the future. For this reason, the corporate interests that control the Cosco Busan — which include one of the largest shipping concerns in the world — have been eager to reinterpret the study's findings and delay its publication.

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