Sunday, April 27, 2014

Toes in the Sand

Heard some news the other day that made me pause and think—think about growing up by the ocean in San Francisco where the beaches were our playground. Bakers Beach and Kelly’s Cove; the long, desolate stretch of Ocean Beach, combers sloshing ashore all the way to Daly City, the first time I kissed a boy behind a dune.

The news made me remember that we didn't go barefoot at the beach when I was a kid, especially after heavy seas, because all along the sand, up to the high water mark, were patches of thick, black oil. Our feet got gummed up with it and it was nearly impossible to wipe off our skin or sneakers.

Where it came from, no one knew. Some said it occurred naturally, others blamed discharges from passing boats. We would’ve known if there’d been a big shipwreck, but nothing was ever reported. What we didn’t know was that oil seeped from long sunken ships, created phantom slicks that fouled the beaches. We found dead fish and birds, other marine animals smeared with black, before the ocean's relentless wash wore away the evidence.

We didn’t know that cutting through the fog on a chilly July evening in 1953, before most of us were born, that the SS Jacob Luckenbach was pouring on the speed as she cleared the Golden Gate, heading for Korea. She carried Jeep parts, railroad equipment, and in her holds more than 400,000 gallons of heavy ‘Bunker C’ oil.

 Joanna Hawkins reporting for the Hydrographic Society of America, the SS Hawaiian Pilot, said a Matson freighter, approached San Francisco that night on the last leg of her journey from Honolulu. The ships sighted each other on radar, but the skipper of the SS Hawaiian Pilot mistook the Lukenbach for a pilot ship and headed straight for her, expecting to be guided safely to harbor.

When the vessels heard the plaintive moans of each other’s fog horns it was too late. Hawkins said the SS Hawaiian Pilot suffered bow damage, but the SS Jacob Luckenbach was holed and went down within 30 minutes. No one was killed in the sinking, but death has leaked from the wreck ever since. The Luckenbach still lies in 185 feet of water about 17 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, in the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, an important rookery for a variety of seabirds.

And, for the past half century, the Luckenbach has been leaking oil identified as one of the sources of “orphan spills”—small to mid-sized spills of indeterminate origin—that have plagued California’s coast and has killed tens of thousands of sea birds and other marine life.

In 2002, the U.S. Coast Guard oversaw a $19-million effort to remove oil from the Lukenbach wreck and seal it to prevent further oil releases. Now, state and federal trustees have been awarded $16.9 million for seven projects to address harm caused by the Lukenbach that have killed more than 50,000 California seabirds since 1990.

To provide the greatest benefit to the injured bird species, officials say each project will occur at the species’ breeding grounds. Four of the breeding grounds and restoration projects will be done in northern California with others for long-distance migratory seabirds in New Zealand , Baja California and British Columbia . The projects will include, among other things, restoration of high-value nesting habitat on the Farallon Islands and efforts to improve breeding success of common murres by reducing raven predation through land management practices at cattle ranches near Point Reyes National Seashore.

The award is a result of a claim filed by the government agencies in 2006 for funding from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Since the owners of the Luckenbach no longer exist, the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund pays for oil spill cleanup and the restoration of impacted natural resources when there is no responsible party. The fund is sustained by fees from the oil industry and managed by the Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center (NPFC).

Copies of the Final Restoration Plan, including injury assessment and restoration project details, are available at

For me this news is encouraging. I know undoing environmental damage often takes a long time, but there may come a day in the future when children can play on the beaches surrounding San Francisco and finally take their shoes off to wiggle their toes in the sand.