Oil-spill helpers galore, but limits on their use

When 58,000 gallons of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay last Wednesday volunteers came out of the woodwork, but officials were unprepared for their help.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When a shipping accident last week dumped 58,000 gallons of oil in San Francisco Bay, it washed onto shores that are home to a great concentration of America's environmentalists.

So it shouldn't come as a surprise that volunteers poured forth to help – yet officials still seemed flummoxed when it happened.

Callers overwhelmed a volunteer hot line within an hour. Public meetings devolved at times into heated exchanges when officials told would-be volunteers essentially "Don't call us, we'll call you" if their help was needed. And other residents armed with rubber gloves and pooper-scoopers stormed the closed beaches, calling their oil cleanup work a form of "civil disobedience."

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Officials want volunteers off beaches citing concerns about public health and the safety of frightened wildlife, but some residents question whether the extensive coastline can be cleaned quickly without more help. Partly a culture clash between a bottom-up, crowd-sourcing culture and a top-down, litigation-conscious government, it's also indicative of a national lack of planning for volunteers during crisis, say experts.

"People doing crisis-management planning who don't understand that there will be volunteers – they aren't doing crisis-management planning," says Susan Ellis, president of Energize Inc., a consulting and publishing firm specializing in volunteerism. "There's this strange feeling that somehow it's easy, or when volunteers come we'll deal with it. It's so complex that they oversimplify it."

The organizational blind spot showed during the Sept. 11 aftermath when emergency leaders in New York overlooked calling in experienced volunteer managers, instead tapping one volunteer to handle the others, says Ms. Ellis. Since Sept. 11, some community disaster plans have incorporated volunteer coordinators. However, it's still common even in major crises for the coordinator to be saddled with several other tasks as well, she says.

Authorities have their hands full with the Bay Area spill, from the oil-soaked birds to the coastline to the questions.

The Cosco Busan, a cargo ship bound for South Korea, hit the Bay Bridge amid fog on Wednesday morning. One of the ship's tanks ruptured, dumping thick fuel into the bay. The National Transportation Safety Board announced Sunday it was opening a criminal investigation.

The US Coast Guard has taken heavy criticism for its early handling of the incident – including waiting two hours before swinging into full action.

Cleanup efforts now involve 81 vessels, three helicopters, and 1,048 people as of Monday. Some 12,000 gallons of oil had been collected and an additional estimated 4,000 gallons had evaporated. But about 42,000 gallons remain.

Where volunteerism surrounding beach cleanup seems to be in disarray, an extensive volunteer system is helping to save oil-covered birds. Officials created a public hot line for reporting birds, which are collected by trained experts. So far they've retrieved 402 dead birds, and 511 live, but messy, ones.

The birds are carted 30 miles inland to a special rehabilitation center. The permanent facility, run by the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), is drawing on a list of 1,000 previously trained volunteers, many from wildlife organizations.

"With the potential magnitude, we are now starting to integrate the general public," said Mike Ziccardi, director of OWCN, a partnership between Fish & Game and the University of California Davis.

Staff and trained volunteers examine and wash each bird.

Walk-in volunteers are given less technical tasks such as cleaning equipment, laundering towels – and fetching lunch.

"We haven't fed a bird, but we feed the people," says Katrina Pearson, who came over the weekend to volunteer with her daughter, Kate Pelto. "You feel so helpless when you see it. We were able to do something, and that felt good."

Frustration, however, ran high at three area volunteer meetings held over the weekend by California Fish & Game. Some came in old clothes thinking they would be heading out to the beaches, but officials just collected people's contact information and answered questions.

"Here we have a golden opportunity, a three-day weekend right after the spill, and I can't do anything to help," says one attendee, Barbara Hogan, who has experience working at the local Marine Mammal Center. "They don't even have us put our skills on that form."

During a packed session in Marin, one woman raised her hand and explained she was a veterinarian who had tried in vain to reach someone to offer her expertise.

It's common for agencies to view volunteers as only bringing "hearts and hands" to the table, says Ellis. The goal is to ask "Are there some of you here who can do exactly what we need [or] bring a skill we didn't expect?"

Yvonne Addassi, an environmental specialist with California Fish & Game, asked for patience at the meeting. "We've never gone to public meetings like this because we usually have to work very hard to get people to volunteer," she said.

She presented a recent scientific study which found that there were health problems associated with oil cleanup workers and volunteers. Fish & Game experts also explained hazards of helping without proper full-body gear and noted that there are state regulations known as HAZWOPER that require a 24-hour training course for participants of hazardous materials cleanups.

San Francisco resident Beth Brown questions how the effort can be done by just above 1,000 professionals, "[The number] sounds like an office Christmas party," she says, "It does not sound like a major operation to clean up the Headlands all the way to Ocean Beach."

Ms. Brown and a friend donned rubber gloves and used a cat litter scoop to pick up oil off a local beach before a policeman ordered them to leave.

Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti said Sunday that they are working with the state to get training to volunteers and to tap people who already have it like EMTs.

In the meantime, volunteers have been asked to help clean debris from beaches not yet hit by oil. Some have taken it on themselves to place booming, a type of protective barrier, across local harbors not yet protected by professional efforts.

"You just have to do it. Otherwise it won't get done," says Doreen Gounard, harbor manager at Galilee Harbor in Sausilito. She and about 20 residents scrambled to procure booming, ultimately saving their local marsh from contamination. "There's too much coastline here, there's not enough professionals to take care of it."

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