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Calif. oil spill timing makes it a hot political issue

Published Oct. 16, 2005

The spilled oil slopping onto California beaches is more than an environmental disaster. It's a conspicuous, election-year issue for politicians and environmentalists.

And because it coincided with campaigns for the June primary, when candidates for governor will be chosen along with many other state and local offices, it's a prime political opportunity.

In fact, so many politicians took to the beaches that Mayor Tom Mays finally asked them for advance notice so they would not interfere with the cleanup. "They were bringing their podiums on the beach and it was a whole show," Mays said.

"This kind of thing motivates to action even people who are not politically or environmentally active," said Bob Hattoy, regional director of the Sierra Club. "You've got angry Republican housewives from Orange County sopping up oil with tea towels. This will have an effect."

The cause of the 400,000-gallon spill Feb. 7 still is under investigation, but officials speculated the 811-foot American Trader was struck by one of its anchors while maneuvering into a mooring area two miles offshore.

As the cleanup continues, it is hoped that the lawmakers' publicity efforts will have effects outside their campaigns.

One expectation is that lawmakers will revitalize efforts aimed at improving oil industry safety, including proposals for double hulls and double bottoms on tankers, better traffic control system to guide tankers along the coast, more tanker safety equipment, and a halt to new offshore oil drilling.

The double hull issue probably will be the first settled because it is currently before a House-Senate committee working on compromise legislation.

William Rusnack, vice president of corporate planning for Arco, said the oil industry was bracing for the worst. "We always have a concern there could be an overreaction," he said.

As of Saturday, 10 days after the spill, the oil had killed about 175 birds and coated 370 others in oil. About 1,000 grunion, a small fish, were killed when they came ashore to lay their eggs, which also were doomed. Halibut fisheries were devastated, fishermen said.

Ship traffic was barred at three harbors, hurting fishing boat charter services, Catalina Island excursion operators and whale-watching boat operators. Even local fish stores that sold fish caught far away from the spill lost business from the publicity.

Sandbags and booms so far have protected environmentally sensitive wetlands, and almost no oil drifted south to the tide pools and the rocky shoreline, which would have been much more difficult to clean than the sandy beaches of Newport and Huntington.