Pete Nichols

Nov. 22, 2007

The headline read “Oil Spill Fouls Shores in San Francisco Area.”

58,000 gallons of bunker fuel, the most toxic and least-distilled of petroleum products, gushed from a container ship in San Francisco Bay late last week, impacting beaches up to 20 miles north of the entrance to the bay.

The full extent of the damage done to the San Francisco Bay, the coast and the wildlife that live there has yet to be fully assessed, and perhaps never will. But if we here on the North Coast needed yet another reason not to pursue a container port for Humboldt Bay, this is one to seriously consider.

Humboldt Bay has one of the most treacherous port entrances in the Pacific Northwest. The container ship responsible for the San Francisco spill was same size vessel that would be negotiating the jaws of Humboldt Bay’s mouth to off-load its container cargo.

It would be just a matter of time before one of those massive container ships ended up perched upon the South Jetty, coating the bay and coast in an oily goo. It is not a matter of if, but when, it would happen.

The impacts from the San Francisco Bay spill are economic as well as environmental.

Recently, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger suspended all commercial and sport fishing in the San Francisco Bay region, which put a halt to the opening of crab season for this year, and could have impacts to the commercial fishery for years to come.

Many of our local crab fishermen, who would have gotten a jump start on the season by heading south, now must sit it out and wait for the North Coast opener, while anticipating the pressure from the Bay Area crab fishermen who will flock to the North Coast to set pots.

The recent election for the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District clearly showed that the residents of this county do not want the return of this type of industrial activity to the bay, especially considering the potential for environmental disaster.

Charles Ollivier, the 16-year 5th Division incumbent, and port champion, was resoundingly trounced by a candidate who promoted a vision for the Harbor District that focuses on managing the bay as a natural resource and fostering conservation and recreation as drivers for the economy and quality of life here on the North Coast.

The fact that Mr. Ollivier was endorsed by Congressmember Thompson, Assemblymember Patty Berg, a majority of the Board of Supervisors and sitting Harbor District commissioners, as well as the Eureka Chamber of Commerce, shows that many of our community leaders are out of touch with the true desires our community.

The same could be said for the 2nd Division Harbor District race, where another 16-year incumbent narrowly prevailed, by just 140 votes, in a race where the challenger sported similar ideals of trails, conservation and new ideas for the Harbor District.

If there is one clear message from this current election, it is that we, as citizens, need to make the changes that we want to see around Humboldt Bay and the county.

We have the data and studies that show time and time again that a container port in Humboldt Bay is a folly that is doomed to fail. The current Harbor District has wasted bundles of taxpayer dollars chasing this port dream, and it is time for that to change.

Any possibility for a container port on Humboldt Bay is directly tied to the return of the railroad, which is a vision that will never see the light of day.

The North Coast Railroad Authority, the agency charged with moving that vision forward, is in financial straits, and will never find the means to bring rail service up through the Eel River Canyon.

In 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency conducted a study (available at to evaluate the costs of repairing the damage done to the rail line by landslides.

FEMA concluded that it would cost nearly $650 million, in 1998 dollars, to repair the damage that existed at that time along the line. Today that cost would be well over $1 billion, a cost that could never be recovered by shipping containers to the southland.

I look forward to a new direction for the Harbor District and hope the harbor commissioners heed the message that the residents of the 5th and 2nd divisions recently sent to them. I also encourage all to participate in the process of shaping the future of Humboldt Bay.

These agencies will be making crucial decisions about the bay and the community in the very near future that will impact all of us for many years to come.

(This article was printed in the Eureka Times-Standard on November 22, 2007 under the title, "Voters send message on Bay's future.")