Report 2008-102 Summary - August 2008

Office of Spill Prevention and Response: It Has Met Many of Its Oversight and Response Duties, but Interaction With Local Government, the Media, and Volunteers Needs Improvement


Our review of the Department of Fish and Game's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (spill office) found that:


In November 2007 the Cosco Busan, an outbound container ship, hit a support on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, releasing about 53,600 gallons of oil into the bay. This event, known as the Cosco Busan oil spill, focused public attention on California's Office of Spill Prevention and Response (spill office), a division of the Department of Fish and Game (Fish and Game). The spill office, created in 1991, is run by an administrator appointed by the governor, who is responsible for preventing, preparing for, and responding to oil spills in California waters.

The spill office, along with the contingency plans it oversees, fits into a national framework for preventing and responding to oil spills, with entities at every level of government handling some aspect of the planning effort. As part of this effort, each marine vessel entering California waters must have a vessel contingency plan (vessel plan) on file with the spill office, designating private entities that will respond if oil spills from that vessel. When an oil spill occurs, the response is overseen by a three part unified command consisting of representatives from the spill office; the party responsible for the spill and its designated representatives; and the federal government, represented by the U.S. Coast Guard (Coast Guard), which retains ultimate authority over the response.

The spill office has met many of its key responsibilities related to the oversight of contingency planning and oil spill response organizations (response organizations) and to participation in the response to the Cosco Busan oil spill. For example, the spill office has successfully completed significant responsibilities to review and approve vessel plans—including the one for the Cosco Busan—and has conducted reviews of response organizations, including carrying out follow up activities when it identifies deficiencies.

However, the California Oil Spill Contingency Plan (state plan), which the spill office maintains, is outdated, is missing elements required by state law, and does not contain references to regional and area contingency planning documents that contain these missing elements. In addition, although the spill office has carried out its oversight of local government contingency plans (local plans), only six of the 22 local governments participating have revised their plans since 2004, and seven of the 16 remaining local plans have not been revised since 1995 or before. Further, the spill office has reported that few local governments have attended oil spill response drills. The lack of up to date local plans and the low level of local government involvement in joint planning efforts indicate that the spill office could do more to integrate local governments into federal and state oil spill response efforts and to help local governments understand their role in the response to an incident.

The spill office, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Emergency Services), and private entities responding to the Cosco Busan oil spill met their fundamental responsibilities set forth in contingency plans. Within an hour and a half of the spill, among other actions, the spill office formed a unified command with the Coast Guard to oversee the response, activated spill office staff as a field response team, and initiated an investigation into the cause and volume of the spill. It also activated the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (wildlife network), which through March 2008 collected more than 2,900 live and dead oiled birds and released 421 rehabilitated birds back into the wild. Emergency Services, which is responsible for initial notifications of oil spills, did not immediately notify all affected counties, consistent with its procedures at that time, but did so when the scale of the spill became clear and later changed its procedures to more effectively notify counties in the future. Finally, within six hours of the oil spill, response organizations had 13 vessels and a truck on scene with a collective capacity of removing 2.4 million gallons of oil per day, a storage capacity of 148,000 gallons, and 15,800 feet of containment boom.

However, some response efforts to the Cosco Busan oil spill revealed weaknesses in the spill office's coordination with local governments, communication with the public, immediate response procedures, and the ability of the wildlife network to provide sufficient trained personnel to perform wildlife rescue activities. These failings caused intense media scrutiny and may have reduced the efficiency of the overall response effort, according to response participants. For example, the spill office had a shortage of trained liaison and public information officers experienced in oil spill response. The shortage led to problems in communicating specific and timely information concerning response efforts and volunteer participation to local governments and the public. To address the lack of a public information officer, Fish and Game indicates it recently hired an individual to fill that role.

In addition, the spill office's lack of urgency in calculating the spill volume may have delayed the deployment of additional response resources and the notification of local governments. Initial reports put the spill at no more than 420 gallons, and although the spill office calculated a much higher and more accurate volume of oil spilled, its staff did not report that calculation until more than seven hours after the spill occurred. Finally, the lack of trained, immediately available personnel from the wildlife network to rescue oiled wildlife may have hindered the unified command's ability to help wildlife affected by the spill. The wildlife network cited difficulties maintaining a pool of personnel with training in hazardous waste operations and emergency response as the cause for the staff shortage.

Our audit also revealed that expenditures in the Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund (fund), which pays for most of the spill office's activities, were significantly below revenues in fiscal years 2003-04 and 2004-05, leading to a buildup of reserves. This buildup coincided with a one cent increase in the fee charged per barrel of crude oil and petroleum products received in California, which occurred in 2003. On June 30, 2007, the fund balance amounted to $17.6 million, or six months of budgeted expenditures for the next year. A more reasonable reserve for a fund with a fairly stable level of expenditures would be about one and a half months, according to the spill office's deputy administrator (deputy administrator). During the last few years, the spill office has not annually determined the reasonableness of the fee charged or the fund reserve balance, as the law requires. However, the spill office believes that the reserve balance will drop by half over the next two years based on projected expenditures.

Further, the spill office is facing two employee related issues. First, our testing of payroll charges revealed the need to better ensure that only allowed oil spill prevention activities are charged to the fund. For example, we noted that staff filling the 23.5 spill prevention warden positions perform some activities unrelated to oil spill prevention as part of their normal duties yet are paid almost entirely from the fund. Fish and Game has acknowledged that this practice occurs but has not taken steps to match the wardens' funding to the activities they perform. Second, a restructuring by Fish and Game that placed about 19 percent of spill office staff under the direct control of other Fish and Game units has caused friction between the spill office and the rest of the department, although managers of three of the areas affected—enforcement, legal, and information technology—cited few negative effects. Nevertheless, the few problems we identified, plus serious reservations expressed by both the past administrator of the spill office and the current deputy administrator, indicate the need for a better understanding related to the management of these employees.


To ensure that the State's activities in response to an oil spill are complete and well integrated with other efforts, the spill office should regularly update the state plan and include references to sections of the regional plan and area contingency plans that cover required elements.

To better integrate local plans with the response activities in other types of contingency plans and to keep local plans up to date, the spill office should work with local governments to improve their participation.

To strengthen its role as a liaison between local governments and the unified command, the spill office should ensure that it has a sufficient number of trained liaison officers.

To ensure that it performs and reports spill volume calculations quickly, the spill office should establish procedures to ensure that staff promptly report their results.

To carry out recovery activities effectively, the spill office should ensure that the wildlife network identifies and trains a sufficient number of staff.

To maintain an appropriate reserve balance for the fund, the spill office should annually assess the reasonableness of the reserve balance and the fee.

To ensure proper use of the fund, the spill office and Fish and Game should make certain that staff time charged to the fund is only for oil spill prevention activities. Further, the spill office and Fish and Game should discuss their respective authorities and better define their respective roles in managing spill prevention staff consistent with the spill office's responsibilities and Fish and Game's needs.


Fish and Game generally agreed with our recommendations and indicated it is taking steps to implement them.