By Simran Sethi, contributing environmental correspondent
Editor's note: As cleanup continues on last week's massive San Francisco Bay oil spill, the investigation into what caused it has hit a new snag. You can read the latest
here. Meanwhile, Simran had the rare opportunity to see the damage firsthand.
During our recent "Green is Universal" week, we detailed new ways to fuel our future. This week, an old form of fuel is having egregious impacts in one of this country's great waterways, the San Francisco Bay.
I was ensconced in a hotel in San Francisco, reporting for CNBC at the Coop America Green Business Conference on the growth of socially and environmentally responsible businesses, when a container ship crashed into the Bay, spilling an estimated 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the water.
Buried in the business of green businesses, I wasn't immediately able to get to the Bay Bridge, but on Tuesday, was able to get a better sense of the damage. First, you smell it. Then, you see it: the darkened sand, birds suffocating in coats of oil, and waves of water dotted with gunky blobs.
The fuel that now fills the Bay and has floated into the Pacific Ocean is some of the dirtiest around. It's thick, gooey, bottom-of-the-barrel stuff - what's left over after crude oil is refined into gasoline.
Bunker fuel is a thousand times dirtier than the highway diesel fuel that powers trucks and buses, and contributes to the shipping industry's status as a major contributor to climate change. But the oil is used prolifically because it's cheap.
Oil skimmers have removed about 12,000 gallons of oil from the water, but it hasn't been easy. Bunker oil is tougher to handle than other types of fuels. It breaks down slowly, is hard to clean, and is laden with heavy metals, sulfur and other polluting chemicals.
Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order banning both commercial and sport fishing until December 1st, or until state health and wildlife officials determine that crabs, herring and other marine life are safe to eat. Marine life is particularly vulnerable in enclosed bays like San Francisco's, because bunker oil sinks into the sediment and can linger for decades.
Still, the Dungeness crab season opened as scheduled today; those aforementioned state officials determined that, because these specialty crabs are frequently caught more than three miles offshore, fishing for them is safe despite the slick. It's the commercial fishermen who are worried; they know that even one contaminated crab could hurt their entire market.
Local officials are trying to determine if the Coast Guard was slow to respond to this tragedy and exacerbated the impact by not alerting the city and citizens of the spill's magnitude. And, at this point, we are limited in how well we can contain the impacts of the fuel fiasco. But we can take steps to limit the use of bunker fuel in the future. Click here (http://action.foe.org/petition.jsp?petition_KEY=816) to sign the petition created by Friends of the Earth as part of their Clean Vessels campaign, or send a note to your Congressmember urging a phase-out of bunker fuels. That way, future spills - which we are sure to have - will take less of a toll on citizens, crabs, and everything connected to the Bay.