Tom Butt
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  Anatomy of an Oil Spill
February 14, 2021

I learned a lot about oil spills and cleanups this week. We apparently dodged a bullet on what turned out to be a relatively small spill with no lingering effects, but I learned a lot, and I think others did also.

I got my first notice via text message from I believe Contra Costa County at 3:43 PM on Tuesday, February 9, 2021.

Figure 1 - Initial alert at 3:43 PM February 9, 2021

I got my second alert a 3:44 PM.

Figure 2 - Second alert at 3:44 PM

My third alert was from City of Richmond Nixle at 3:53 PM.

Figure 3 - Third alert from Nixle at 3:53 PM

Figure 4 - 4th alert from Contra Costa County at 4:06 PM

By late afternoon, the spill was getting media coverage, such as at 6:00 PM, and a sheen was visible extending from the Long Wharf to Ferry Point.

Figure 5 - Photo by ABC 7 (

I got very brief messages from the City Manager between 3:58 and 5:12, but it was obvious she had not been provided any detailed information. I also got a phone call from the refinery manager.

On the evening of February 9, I got a call from US Coast Guard Capt. Marie Byrd asking if I would like to join her on the morning of February 10 to view the leak from a Coast Guard helicopter. I responded affirmatively.

I boarded a Coast Guard helicopter at 0930 from the Fire Training Center for a flyover of the oil spill. This was only the second time I had been in a helicopter since Vietnam, the first being a flight out of the Grand Canyon after a raft trip. The Coast Guard pilot gave me all kinds of safety equipment – a flight suit, life vest, helmet (with microphone and visor) and gloves, and we were securely belted in. In Vietnam, we just rode with an open door and our feet hanging out.

Figure 6 - getting ready to fly

Figure 7 - Off we go, from the Fire Training Center

Figure 8 – Containment boom at the leak point of origin at the Long Wharf

I observed two “deflection booms” deployed, the longest at Ferry Point, and a smaller boom encircling the point of origin at the Long Wharf. From media reports of the afternoon of February 9, the sheen from the leak had traveled south on the ebb tide to at least Ferry Point. The next high tide was February 9 at 1145, which would have resulted in the oil reversing direction and heading north. Low tide was at 0422 on February 10 and high tide at 1022. When I observed the oil sheen from a helicopter at about 1000 on February 10, it had migrated with the flood tide  north well into San Pablo Bay, probably 3-4 miles north of the Long Wharf.

Figure 9 - Sheen extending past the Brothers and north into San Pablo Bay

After the flight, we visited the Incident Command Center at Chevron where maybe a hundred people from Chevron, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Contra Costa Health Services were assembled. I received a briefing on the current situation.

Figure 10 - Capt. Byrd pointing at the briefing map

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Figure 11 - Incident Command Center at Chevron

After pondering what I had seen, I had some questions and concerns, some of which were later answered by Capt. Byrd and a representative from CDFW.

The first was why the containment booms had not been deployed to totally surround the sheen and collect the oil (later conformed to be mostly diesel) when it was relatively small and confined between the Long Wharf and Ferry Point. What I was told is that there is a significant different between observable “sheen” that could be as thin as a single molecule and “product” or “material” that is thicker. Sheen can be neither confined nor effectively collected. It eventually dissipates by evaporation, bioremediation or dilution. What people were mainly seeing was sheen. Product, on the other hand, can be confined and collected, and the product had been mostly isolated in the immediate vicinity of the spill source and was being effectively cleaned up.

I had heard a rumor from several sources that Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC), which is located less than a mile away at Point Potrero Marine Terminal was not deployed in favor of a different Chevron contractor. That proved not to be accurate. MSRC was part of the management and cleanup effort.

I also saw a long string of comments on Nextdoor about a person looking for treatment for a “sick seagull” that may or may not have been affected by the spill. The poster said the gull smelled of oil. In any event, the bird died while the person was transporting it to Lindsey Wildlife Sanctuary. What I was concerned about was that there apparently was no public information about where to go or who to contact for treatment for affected wildlife. The problem turned out to be one of communication. The “Unified Command” had been issuing “Liaison Updates” daily since February 9, but I never received one, and it is unclear if others in Richmond received them. They all clearly stated, “While no oiled animals have been reported at this time, the public should report any oiled wildlife encounters or sightings to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at 1-8770UCD-OWCN (1-800-823-6926).” The information was there, but it was not being effectively disseminated.

One fact that stood out was an inconsistency between the timeline in the Liaison Updates and the Incident Action Report I received from the Coast Guard. All the updates say. “At 3:25 pm on Tuesday, February 9, 2021, the Chevron Refinery reported a petroleum leak…” Yet the Incident Briefing packet Capt. Byrd gave to me on the morning of February 10 had a detailed timeline that started nearly an hour earlier at 02/09/2021 1430, “Start of leak/incident response (hydrocarbon) MSDS 4905; call from outside refinery notifying oil in water. Contacted Blending and Shipping (B&S) Operations Team to investigate.”

The timeline went on to report boats in water for survey at 1434, booms out by 1500, started agency notifications at 1515, Blue Boat full containment South of Causeway at 1515 and  RFD support on scene at 1515. All this happened before 3:25 pm, when the Liaison Updates say the spill was first reported.

Figure 12 - "Happy Friday all. Who do I call for a sick seagull? We found it in our facility laying in the middle of our heavily trafficked area. I called animal control, they routed me to wildlife which re-routed me back to the sheriff. I tried again hoping for a different outcome but to no avail. Looks like this young seagull is getting weaker as time goes by. I work at the Port of Richmond Point Potrero Shipyard 3. Perhaps this seagull ingested something from that oil spill. It's not oily but smells oily. I'll try calling again. **UPDATE**So very sorry folks, as I left work to take this seagull to the Lindsey Wildlife Sanctuary around 12pm, I was in highway 4 and took a look at our friend, it has passed away I'm guessing it has succumbed to it's illness or something unknown. Sorry guys, I tried.

Following are links to to each of the daily Liaison Updates, which were provided to me February 13 by a CDFW staff member. They provide a very detailed day-to-day status of the spill and cleanup.

One thing that caught my attention was a discussion of eelgrass beds. The February 10 Liaison Update stated, “The environmentally sensitive sites at the Richmond Eelgrass beds (site 2-452) and on the southern side of Brooks Island (site 2-453) were successfully boomed using a total of 3600’ and 2550’ of boom, respectively, to protect the shorelines.” Perhaps because of the years of controversy over Point Molate where development opponents have cited alleged danger to the eelgrass beds, people generally believe that eelgrass in unique to Point Molate. However, as you can see by the map below, eelgrass extends from Point San Pablo to Ferry Point.

Figure 13 - Eelgrass beds

On February 13, I was headed to East Brother Light Station and stopped along the way to look a beaches along the San Pablo Peninsula. I could neither see nor smell any evidence of the spill. There were three boats still working the spill just south of the Point Orient pier.

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Figure 14 - Working on the spill on February 13 at Point Orient