Risk of oil spills exist in San Diego, experts say at forum

By Joe Tash

Contributor

San Diego County may not be home to offshore oil drilling platforms, but it still faces a risk of oil spills from military and tanker ships, tanker-trucks and an oil pipeline from Los Angeles, said experts at a forum held locally last week.

The forum on the potential for oil spills in San Diego County was organized by San Diego Coastkeeper at a time when the public's attention has been focused for much of the summer to the response to a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by an explosion on a drilling rig. The Aug. 26 forum attracted 80 to 100 people.

"For the most part, the risks in San Diego are not near what you have in Los Angeles," said Steve Weisberg, a scientist and executive director of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project.

But Robin D. Lewis, senior environmental scientist with the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response, said in an interview after the forum that although San Diego doesn't have offshore oil rigs — which can be found further north off the Orange and Los Angeles County coastlines and other locations — the risk of oil spills exists.

"It's shipping traffic, that's the thing here, shipping and boating," said Lewis. Other concerns include a pipeline along the Interstate 5 corridor that leads to a refinery in the Mission Gorge area and trucks that bring in loads of 8,000 gallons of gasoline on local roads.

Navy ships bring in large amounts of fuel into San Diego Bay for ships and aircrafts, and the Navy operates a large tank farm near Pt. Loma.

"They (the Navy) manage and handle an enormous amount of product on a daily basis," said Lewis. Although the Navy has a good safety record and very few spills have occurred over the years, he said, "things happen."

Lewis' office works closely with the U.S. Coast Guard, which would also be a primary responder to any spill incident on the coast or in the bay.

Michael Salviati, a local Coast Guard representative, said on average, about 5,300 gallons of oil are discharged into San Diego waters each year, mostly from such incidents as a boat sinking or developing a leak in a tank or fuel line.

The Coast Guard's response to an oil spill includes efforts to identify the "responsible party," and get them to initiate cleanup action, Salviati said. If the responsible party can't be located or is unwilling to act, then the Coast Guard would begin the cleanup using money from a special trust fund, and seek to recover costs later.

The Coast Guard also works with state and local officials to plan for a large-scale spill and conducts drills and exercises to prepare for such an event, Salviati said.

Another panelist, former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, noted that efforts to expand oil drilling won't be able to satisfy the nation's energy needs, and suggested the public needs to push elected officials to pursue the development of renewable energy sources.

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