Richardson Bay Audubon Director Discusses Her Experience With a Previous Spill

Almost three years ago, a 900-foot containership hit the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, spilling more than 90,000 gallons of oil. Staff at Richardson Bay Audubon Center, with director Brooke Langston at the helm, sprang into action to deal with dozens of oiled birds and protect the area's eelgrass and oysters.

Though Langston is quick to point out that the Deepwater Horizon spill is far worse that what she and her colleagues experienced, there are still lessons to be learned: Namely, every spill is different.

Back in 2007, what were your first thoughts when you heard about the spill?

Probably much how the experts are still thinking now. I was completely overwhelmed, not knowing what to do first.
How did you overcome that initial paralysis? 
It was funny, it was my board. My board stepped right up. At 6 a.m. Saturday morning, we were ready to go. The support of my board and the community, as we’re experiencing now in the Gulf, the response from the community volunteers was just amazing.
Then we sort of caught a rhythm. It got pretty smooth pretty quickly actually. I would say, within 48 hours we were clicking.
What was the initial mood after the ’07 spill?
We had many emotions. After we caught our stride, it was almost like a celebration. Once we figured out how people could help and what our jobs were, it was a relief. ‘You’re going on the boat, you’re going to beaches, you’re going to be on the phone, you’re making lunches.’ Once we had our rhythm, it felt good because we were doing what Audubon was supposed to do. There was a crisis and we could help.
Not much oil hit the beaches then, right?
We got lucky with wind and tides. [The oil] hit a lot of birds. We were dealing more with oiled birds than oiled land. I don’t know if this was just coincidence or if the birds figured out where to go because there was no oil here. We cleaned up some debris, but not like they did in other places.
Eelgrass and oysters have been a focus for Richardson Bay Audubon, especially after researchers discovered a native oyster once thought extinct in the area. Did the oil spill affect these species?
We don’t think so. We think there’s one eelgrass bed affected in a different part of the Bay, but not as a whole. We got very lucky with tides. They pushed the whole massive nasty mess into the ocean.
What was your initial reaction to the Deepwater Horizon spill?
I would never compare what we went through with this. We had a little spit in the bucket. I am amazed and overwhelmed and saddened—really overwhelmed—with what we as Audubon and we as the nation and we as the earth are dealing with on this one. It’s just so huge.
After the oil spill [in 2007], Richardson Bay Audubon received funding from several different foundations for oil-spill readiness. Everybody was all gung-ho. As time passed, oil spills just seemed so ludicrous. We learned so much. We thought, ‘There’s never going to be another oil spill…It was just so horrible.’ When this one happened, it was kind of like a kick in the stomach. How can we let this happen again?
Then I wanted to get on an airplane immediately. What can I do to help?
Are there lessons from the Bay spill you can pass on to those in the Gulf region now?
What’s amazing is that just as each ecosystem is different and the plants and animals are different, so are the rules. Most of my suggestions won’t work because it’s breeding season and there are birds on the beaches. The oil is going to hit very unpopulated areas.
So I would say, ‘Tell people to not walk their dogs on the beaches,’ and someone would say, ‘There are no people.’ I would say, ‘Send people to the beach to get the trash,’ and someone would respond, ‘We can’t send people to the beach because there are nesting birds.’ It’s very interesting that each spill, each situation is very unique.
But some lessons do translate.
The Richardson Bay Audubon Center gained a lot of creditability and respect and stature after the ’07 oil spill. I think that was because we answered the telephone. Everyone was desperate to get reassurance and information. They were calling all over the place. We answered the phones and we talked to people. We had volunteers here 15 hours a day, talking to people, talking to press. I think that was a big part of our success.
Audubon is working very hard to replicate that. People are doing a good job of trying to replicate that, being responsive, not turning away the general public. Audubon is the people-of-conservation organization. We involve people in the solutions.
People clearly want to help, and you obviously understand the feeling. What would you suggest?
It’s very tricky, dangerous business for the birds and the rescuers and the habitat. As frustrating as it is for everyone, we all have to be patient and not try to help until the help is asked for, and then only help in what you’re trained for. Help at the wrong time can do more harm than good.
This is new. This is not something we’ve experienced before, at this scale, in this habitat. The experts on the ground are still trying to figure out what do to, to get their system in place. I keep saying the same thing: We love and are thrilled by everyone’s offers of support. But we have to be patient until the systems are in place.
Can anything positive come of this?
The governor of California has stopped thinking about drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara. That just happened yesterday afternoon. (See senior editor Susan Cosier’s post below.) He was going to open new oil leases to help get the state of California out of debt. Now he doesn’t think that seems like such a good idea. It’s a very small, weak silver lining.
On the very immediate scale, we rethink the possibility of new drilling. But also, we have to rethink our use of petroleum. We’re all guilty. We want low-priced petroleum and we want a lot of it. There’s cost to that. I don’t want to sound at all like I’m excusing BP for what they’ve done, but while there’s a demand for oil, the suppliers are going to do what they can to supply it.

Does cleaning the birds help
We’re not going to leave the birds on the beach and watch them die, even if we know the likelihood of their success is not good. Getting them off the beach is important. I also think it’s good for humans to help. People are part of the problem; people can be part of the solution.

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