Too often closing the barn door too late

Clearly human nature is want to ignore the obvious until it strikes us in the face, or in the ocean in the present case. Why we aren’t willing to be sufficiently pro-active and take preventative measures in the face of imminent or likely disaster is a mystery on the one hand and yet an inevitability on the other. Or so it seems.
Take the oil spill in the San Francisco Bay on November 7, 2007—just over a week ago. We know that oil spills can and do have devastating impacts on wildlife, ocean eco-systems and local economies. We know, too, that much can be done to prevent or at least signficantly reduce the possibility of catastrophic consequences of oil spills. An obvious preventative measure is to require tankers to be double-hulled, or require the use of tugboats to help them traverse difficult passage-ways, like the San Francisco Bay during heavy fog. Another is to require our emergency response agencies be well-trained and well-equipped with the most up-to-date equipment to respond in case protective measures fail. Of course, this also requires a willingness to make an investment of resources.
In today’s California, the notion of coughing up the bucks to protect against disasters or provide the resources to rapidly contain them if they do occur, is just not politically feasible. And heaven forbid we call upon those massive ships or the even more massive oil industry to pay sufficient fees to assure their product doesn’t pollute our previous shores. But, when disaster strikes–by fire, by flood or by oil, we expect those resources to magically appear. We complain when aircraft shows up late to make water drops or when equipment to contain oil seepage isn’t available or deployed quickly or when there just aren’t enough people or machines available to do the job.
The consequences, of course, can be devastating….and the ultimate damage much more expensive than the costs of protecting ourselves in advance. Prevention is always worth a pound of cure, but if prevention keeps the problem from happening, we tend to believe that there wasn’t a problem to begin with—so why spend the money in the first place? Or is it, sadly, the sage observation by great songwriter Joni Mitchell that “you don’t know what you’ve got til its gone…”?

If the good people of San Diego had agreed to tax themselves on average just $46 per family per year after the devastating fires in 2003 to establish their own fire department, the destruction just witnessed there last month would have been much less because we would have been prepared with more equipment and more firefighters to respond quickly. God forbid we ask the people to step up with an additional $46 to protect our million dollar homes. Sadly, this short-sightedness had tragic consequences last month and with our state’s semi-arid southern portion, it will likely again.
The same holds true for the rest of the state and sadly the country as well today as we watched our short-sightedness play out in the waters of the San Francisco Bay. We have little money for marine safety and response to shipping mishaps because whatever funds we have available to the Coast Guard are going to Homeland Security, such as it is( or perhaps more accurately into the black hole known as Iraq). As a result, equipment has aged, training and drills to improve response and effectiveness are few and far between. And that’s just the U.S.Coast Guard.
Here in California, the agencies responsible for oil management are a complete hodgepodge, with seven different agencies having some degree of responsibility for some aspect of oil drilling, transport, pipelining, etc.
Sadly, virtually each and every one of these agencies has seen a consistent and dibilitating reduction in their budgets so that they are less and less able to perform their functions and meet their safety responsibilities. Included among them is the Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, charged with overseeing the recent spill and its cleanup Their budget has been underfunded for years. It is now so depleted that its funding is 40% LESS than it was six years ago, a time when it was inadequate even then.
So as cargo ships increase in size and continue to transport their goods (and the enormous amount of fuel required) in single-hulled ships (which won’t be banned for several years), we are asking more of our governmental institutions than they can reasonably accomplish. Rather than require certain safeguards, such as the use of tugboats to help these large ships navigate through difficult weather and the transport of certain types of cargo, we simply ignore the accident waiting to happen. We refuse to make these massive industries responsible or accountable financially. Let the ships get bigger, let the cargos be dangerous or fragile without any additional protections, let the responsible agencies operate without adequate staffing and equipment to protect the fragile ecosystems in which they navigate, let the public and our resources be damned!
So what have we left now that a large cargo ship has dumped 58,000 gallons of filthy bunker fuel into the Bay and its surrounding areas? Not the largest spill, by far, but one that has killed thousands of birds, fish and other wildlife and destroyed the crab season for California’s crab fishermen. We have seen, for sure, that our current protections are inadequate and sorely underfunded and that these kinds of “accidents” carry with them an enormous cost, frequently more than the cost of investing in prevention. Whether disasters caused by mother nature or human error, it is far cheaper and better to close the barn door before the animals escape than to try to retrieve them afterwards. It is far easier to have the staffing to stop a wildfire before it destroys thousands of homes and maintain more effective vigilance over our precious oceans and wildlife than scooping up what little of the muck we can after the fact.
The question is: Will we ever learn that keeping our heads in the sand will not prevent disaster from happening? Will we ever figure it out that we can get a far better return on our common investment if we focus on prevention rather than reaction? Will we stop capitulating to the biggest industries that are able to threaten our natural resources with virtually no consequences or financial responsibility?
Some things are within our control, some things mother nature will control. But what we as people and as a state can control, we must. We must realize that keeping the barn door closed may require an investment in dollars, but the return on that investment in resources and lives is far greater than constantly closing the barn door after its too late. We are a state too prone to the vagaries of mother nature and human error to continue on this path. It is time to act–before the next preventable disaster occurs. We all need to step up to the plate and do what we can in advance, to protect what we’ve got…..before it’s gone.