A mysterious substance that turned up earlier this year in San Francisco Bay, killing hundreds of seabirds and requiring emergency care for dozens more, spotlighted the generosity of those who donated time and money to aid in the response.
But the incident also left wildlife rescue organizations on the hook for more than $150,000 to rehabilitate the sticky birds because state law excludes funding when the response involves a nonpetroleum-based substance.
Today, state legislators and environmental-protection advocates are announcing legislation to close that loophole.
Senate Bill 718, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would authorize the Office of Spill Prevention and Response to borrow up to $500,000 from the state's oil spill prevention fund to help rehabilitate and rescue wildlife in spill events where the substance isn't petroleum-based.
“California has a sophisticated oil spill response system, but in the unique event when a pollutant is unidentified, there is no clear funding mechanism for the cleanup,” Leno said in a statement. “This legislation clarifies that the state's top priority during a spill of any kind is to immediately protect waterways and wildlife, regardless of what type of substance caused the problem.”
The mystery goo that impacted birds primarily between Jan. 16 and Jan. 22, which Leno's office said inspired the legislation, is believed to be a blend of nonpetroleum-based fats or oils, but the exact product has not been determined and the source remains unknown.
The contaminant coated the seabirds — primarily surf scoters, buffleheads and horned grebes — by severely compromising their ability to stay warm, float, fly and locate food. The substance congealed into a sticky, thick consistency that was difficult to remove from the feathers of affected birds.
As of March 14, 154 birds cleaned by the International Bird Rescue organization in Fairfield were returned to the wild, and 19 remained in its care. Overall, more than 300 birds died due to the mystery goo.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife investigated the incident, though no state resources were available to support nongovernment agencies in their rescue efforts. The International Bird Rescue alone spent about $150,000 on care.
In addition to allocating state funding for incidents like the mystery goo response, SB 718 would require responsible parties to reimburse the state for the costs of cleanup, including accrued interest.