Watchdog on the water: Group uses drones to monitor the ‘fragile ecosystem’ of the Bay

How artificial intelligence can catch polluters and respond to climate change

On a brisk February morning, Cole Burchiel hopped onto a small boat near Oracle Park and greeted skipper Tracy Rogers as the sun burned off the morning cloud cover.

As the vessel pulled away from the harbor and chugged eastward down the shoreline, Burchiel pointed at the mammoth cargo ships docked in Anchorage Nine, a stretch of water off Hunters Point where ocean freighters wait to unload at the Port of Oakland.

“This is a big parking lot,” said Burchiel. “We’ve got full cargo ships out here. We’ve got two oil tankers right there that are sitting low in the water.” It’s a fact, he said, “that’s a little anxiety-provoking” because it means these idling ships are full of oil and pose a risk of leaking into the Bay.

This morning’s boat ride is part of a routine patrol that Burchiel, a field Investigator at the environmental non-profit Baykeeper conducts to track pollution violations around the Bay – everything from industrial activity in Bayview Hunters Point to chemical spills seeping from Richmond refineries.

But as climate change continues to warm the planet, causing sea levels to rise and more extreme storms to flush trash and pollutants into the Bay, it’s forced Baykeeper to find new ways to monitor the growing number of potential threats along the shoreline where much of the Bay Area’s heavy industry is located.

“Frankly, Baykeeper is being challenged to pivot to meet this moment,” said executive director Sejal Choksi-Chugh. “What we’re seeing now are these climate threats to the Bay. They’re a lot bigger than just a single polluter, and they’re a lot bigger than just a single agency action.”

One way Baykeeper is responding to this changing reality is through the use of drones. Burchiel has recently taken his patrols skyward with a drone named Osprey to survey hard-to-reach inlets or peer over visual barriers that companies build along the shoreline to conceal their activity from the water.

“Pretty much every time I put the drone into the air, it has a quantifiable impact on our ability to do our job,” said Burchiel. “It’s dramatically changed the way that we do our work.”

The foremost example is Baykeeper’s ongoing legal action against the fuel and petrochemical manufacturer, Valero, and a warehousing company named Amports at the Port of Benicia. The lawsuit alleges that the companies have been allowing petroleum pollutants to drain into the Carquinez Strait in violation of federal and state environmental laws.

A whistleblower first alerted Baykeeper of frequent discharges and large aerial plumes spewing from the boats during loading in 2016. But when Burchiel patrolled the area by boat, he was unable to detect any plumes or signs of violation. Then, he launched a drone.

“The majority of the plumes, at least the ones that were visible, were coming out of the far side of the boat that was facing away from land,” said Burchiel. “Once we were over the boat with our drone, we saw the scope of the problem. Without that perspective, we would have had no idea and would continue speculating, guessing, and coming up empty-handed.”

The Valero case is just one of many legal actions Baykeeper, which bills itself as a watchdog on the water, has taken in its 30-year history. To date, the organization has won over 300 lawsuits against polluters and has helped stop sewage spills by seventy-five percent in a dozen cities across the region.

While Choksi-Chugh knows that lawsuits and drone patrols alone will not solve the climate crisis, she has seen the impact Baykeeper can have during her twenty-year tenure. “We can see change happening,” she said. “The bay is vastly improved.”

But those improvements could be undone with the threat of rising sea levels.

The whirr of the boat engine slows to a low hum as the boat idles in front of a defunct pier near Bayview Hunters Point. There are stately brick buildings here, interspersed with derelict warehouses – forgotten remnants of this area’s industrial past. Burchiel points out the old shipyard, former home to a Navy repair facility, and the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory which conducted research on radiological decontamination and the effect of radiation on living organisms.

“Most of this area is covered in a temporary concrete cap to decrease the permeability and decrease contamination of the soil and groundwater,” said Burchiel of the radioactive and toxic chemicals in the soil. “The concern is obviously with sea-level rise, the cap doesn’t work from the bottom.”

A recent report found that seas will be 10 to 12 inches higher across U.S. coastlines in the coming decades and will create a profound shift in coastal flooding over the next 30 years.

In the Bay Area, that means that the industries along the Bay shoreline, could be inundated by rising waters in the very near future, and the buried pollutants and materials will threaten groundwater and expose nearby residents to dangerous chemicals and polluted water.

“Make no mistake: Sea level rise is upon us,” Nicole LeBoeuf, director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service told the Associated Press.

In a partnership with Google Maps, Baykeeper has also deployed Artificial Intelligence to trace nearly 300 miles of coastline, documenting 1100 industrial sites that are contaminating the Bay area or are in the ‘flood zone’ for rising seas, which means they pose risks of leaking pollutants into the Bay.

“The Bay stands to be a really potent metaphor or even a case study for how the rest of the world is going to deal with sea-level rise,” said Burchiel. “Whether you’re in Stockton or San Jose, we are in a connected water body in a really, really intimate way. So the impacts to one side of the bay have dramatic impacts to another.”

As Burchiel motioned to the skipper to turn the boat towards the Port of Oakland, a seal perked its head up from the surf and bobbed in the morning sun.

“Regardless of whether or not we’re cleaning the Bay up for human health standards, the environment is going to be used however it pleases,” said Burchiel. “It’s a really thriving ecosystem that is pretty fragile considering all the industrial activity – you really don’t have anything like the San Francisco Bay anywhere else on Earth.”

Trails of petcoke, a bi-product of oil production, seen draining into the Carquinez Strait from a ship at a dock in Benicia, Calif. (Courtesy SF Baykeeper)

Trails of petcoke, a bi-product of oil production, seen draining into the Carquinez Strait from a ship at a dock in Benicia, Calif. (Courtesy SF Baykeeper)

A pile of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for export is hidden behind boxcars at Levin Terminal in Richmond, Calif. (Courtesy of SF Baykeeper)

A pile of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for export is hidden behind boxcars at Levin Terminal in Richmond, Calif. (Courtesy of SF Baykeeper)

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