Friday, April 10, 2015

How a Toxic Spill Can Be Invisible

Two different fire departments responded to my 911 call, and neither one saw anything requiring action. What was I to make of that? I thought I had done everything right in phoning 911, giving my cell number and hanging around a couple of blocks away. How could they not see what I had seen? I thought Alameda FD was a no-show, but learned later from the fire chief that wasn't the case. After dark, Oakland FD came, but all they had were flashlights. It would have taken a floodlight aimed down the estuary to make out what was left of the plume.

I owe an apology to Alameda's firefighters for doubting them. After meeting with Acting Chief Doug Long, I now have a clearer picture of the mechanics and limitations of their procedures and equipment.

Even under ideal conditions, there was almost a stealth nature to the material in the plume. The grey color of the material made it difficult to distinguish from the water.

Examine closely Image 1kc, at right, taken within Alameda's lagoon community sometime after the lagoons were dredged and before November 20, 2014, when the photo was posted on Facebook.

The white foam and adjacent grey floating material I believe to be the unknown surfactant mentioned above.

The grey areas dispersed among and bordering the white foam are what I believe was the plume I reported in my 911 calls.

Note how hard it is to make out the grey areas because they are so similar to the surrounding water. Note the low light and the textured nature of the water caused by wind or light rain. In such low/flat-light textured conditions the "grey goo" is almost indistinguishable from the water.

Why was I able to see the plume so clearly? Because the conditions at the time were ideal. It was bright and sunny and there was not even a breeze when I first noticed the plume of sludge. The water's surface was like a mirror except for the plume, which I only noticed because there was a texture to it and it was moving directly toward me at a snail's pace for over an hour before I got a good look at it. I had plenty of time to study it, to track it on foot and ponder the significance of what I was seeing. Even so, it was two months later before it sunk in that what I had seen was likely the toxic spill that killed three hundred seabirds.

The conditions for AFD were entirely different. During the two-and-a-half hours that passed since I first spotted the plume hundreds of yards away, the wind had come up, the tidal current had strengthened creating ripples, and the plume was in the shade that had crept out along the north shore of Alameda Island as the afternoon wore on.

Why didn't AFD call me? Because the driver didn't have my cell number. Either it wasn't passed to the driver or the truck wasn't equipped with a wireless monitor. For firefighters, time is critical. They rush to get out the door and on site as fast as possible. A piece of paper with a number on it doesn't always end up in the right hands. Arriving on site, the responders expected to "see something" that was almost impossible to see. And there was nobody around, or so they thought, to point anything out.

Meantime, another hour passed before Oakland FD was on site. By then the plume had broken up substantially and the conditions had worsened. The outgoing tide was ripping along, making the water choppy. They would had to have aimed a floodlight down the estuary to see what was left of plume, but by then the water was choppy. I was beginning to feel dumb for even calling them because there was so little evidence.

The next day I wanted to do something, but I was short of time. I had heard that the lagoons were being dredged, and it clicked in my head that the lagoon portal was just west of the Otis Street Bridge, where I'd first seen the plume. So I squandered what time I had on driving around looking for a dredging crew. One of the workers said the dredgings were carried away on a truck. Where, he didn't know.

So I dropped it. I figured the plume was from some other source, and what evidence there was was out floating in the Pacific Ocean by then. I wrote a rant on Facebook and dropped any notion of folowing up. I had plenty going on in my life to sweat over some junk that was out past the Golden Gate Bridge. Was I wrong!

As I said, only after I heard about the bird-killing grey good did I realize what an opportunity I had missed to prevent hundreds of beautiful seabirds from death and misery.

Again, my apologies to Alameda's firefighters. After I heard about the goo and that there was no record of my 911 calls, I assumed someone was covering up for someone at City Hall. I was angry about the birds. Angry that I might have been fooled. Angry that someone who didn't care about a few hundred birds was getting away with an environmental crime. Nobody thinks clearly when they're angry.

I'm sorry guys. It won't happen again.

There's still work to be done, though, to find out what happened and how to correct it. Maybe we can all learn from this. Next time, even if I have to run to my car and back for my phone and a coat. Even if I have to see a lady safely to her car and run back. I'm going to return to where I made the call so I can direct the responders right to the problem.

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