Slick sales job pays off

Times Staff Writer

Darin Rosas fell asleep one foggy night to the sound of waves crashing at nearby Ocean Beach. He woke to news that an oil spill from a gashed cargo ship was staining the coastline he loves.

So began the computer network security engineer’s surprise stint as a leader of a guerrilla cleanup movement.

Aghast at what he saw as the government-run cleanup’s slow pace, Rosas teamed up with two Silicon Valley friends, Byron Cleary and Kathleen Egan. All three are surfers. All three loathe red tape.


Their beach was getting slimed. Oil-smeared seabirds were in a death dance. The friends wanted action.

Risking arrest, they took time away from work to hit the sand -- and get others out there with them.

In a matter of days they had launched a remarkably successful campaign, harnessing both the high-tech chutzpah and the environmental passion of the Bay Area.

Tapping into far-flung communities of techies and surfers, they marshaled volunteers over the Web. They set up a blog. They offered cleanup tips that others posted on Craigslist. They persuaded local businesses to pitch in by providing paper towels, synthetic gloves, even bagels.

They even came up with an appropriately edgy name: Kill the Spill.

“It was all very hush-hush at first, under the radar,” said Rosas, 33. “We were worried about getting arrested.”

Rightly so.

At first, officials snubbed them, saying exposure to oil wasn’t safe for nonprofessionals, and even pressing what amounted to trespassing charges against one Marin County beach cleanup activist.

Initially, too, authorities weren’t at all prepared for the flood of volunteers.

Last Monday, U.S. Coast Guard officials acknowledged that state and federal agencies as well as private firms hired for the cleanup couldn’t cope with the volume of inquiries. Callers overwhelmed the hotline at the state’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. The switchboard at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network operated by UC Davis was similarly inundated.

“This groundswell has been unprecedented,” said Steve Edinger of the California Department of Fish and Game. “We’ve never seen people who wanted to clean oil off a beach.”

But the blossoming movement and others like it grew so big so fast that eventually the powers that be had to change their tune and let residents help clean up their bay.

Instead of turning away the citizen troops, officials began holding condensed, four-hour evening seminars in San Francisco and Berkeley on how to skirt health hazards and avoid inflicting further environmental damage during cleanup.

One recent night at a Bay Area meeting hall, 600 volunteers became newly deputized, each issued an embossed certification card on a lanyard.

That’s not the way things started out for the founders of Kill the Spill.

A day after the Nov. 7 accident, Rosas returned from work to see the city’s animal control officers scurrying along the beach collecting oiled birds.

He and another surfer joined in the hunt, scooping up the quivering seabirds, so saturated with oil they could hardly move, let alone peck at their rescuers’ hands.

Rosas’ buddies Cleary and Egan, meanwhile, spent a frustrating day at the Coast Guard command post trying to find out how to help.

They were told that stepping on the shoreline would make them “convergent volunteers,” government-speak for unwanted amateurs -- subject to fine or arrest or both. Undeterred, they headed to the beach, where they found that some stretches of sand had been blocked with yellow tape, like a crime scene.

“When we got out to the beaches, we realized this was a big issue,” Cleary, 33, said. “This was a catastrophe.”

Wearing headlamps donated by a sports store, they joined friends to gather up oiled birds well into the evening. Then they rose the next day, a Friday, and hit the beachfront, dividing it into sectors that they tried to mop as best they could.

At first, everyone was unprepared. Some showed up in flip-flops. So local triathletes donated old running shoes for folks to use, then toss out after they were done.

Cleary’s jeans grew so saturated with oil that his friends just cut them off at the knees. He pressed on in his newly fashioned clam diggers.

On that first Friday, two days after the spill, they had a few dozen volunteers. By Saturday, a couple hundred people showed up after word spread on surfing and environmental websites. By Sunday, more than 600 helped sop up more than a ton of oil from Ocean Beach. They included not just surfers and high-tech workers but dog walkers and lawyers, bankers and even a few foreign tourists.

“The number of people who wanted to help was overwhelming,” said Egan, 39, who has a Harvard business degree and runs a high-tech sales group.

Authorities came by and warned them but never took action.

To the north across the Golden Gate, where the oil-soaked waves washed over Marin County’s Muir Beach, Sigward Moser was not so lucky. The 45-year-old, who lives in a nice house on the shoreline, helped found one of the largest social investing firms in the country.

When swells sent an oil slick toward the creek and lagoon near his property, he and other volunteers tried to help.

He now faces two federal charges of entering an emergency area and not obeying an order to leave.

“When we started and ended, there was no cleanup crew there,” he said. “We were just trying to do the right thing.”

Kill the Spill’s volunteers quickly wised up to the risks -- not just from cranky authorities but also from the oil itself. Jeans and flip-flops quickly gave way to white Tyvek suits and latex gloves donated by local businesses. They improvised their own tools: kitty-litter scoops and spatulas duct-taped to poles.

The crews also brought a few new tricks to the cleanup: human hair and mushrooms.

Kill the Spill hooked up early on with Lisa Gautier, head of the ecological nonprofit group Matter of Trust, who helped popularize the use of hair mats for cleanup duties. The mats of hair, collected from barbers and then woven into 1-foot squares like giant scrub pads, are distributed by the city of San Francisco to keep residents from pouring motor oil into storm drains. They proved perfect for beach cleanup.

Rosas said the mats work like a dream, sponging up the slippery fuel. When private crews eventually arrived at Ocean Beach with rakes and shovels, he used the mats to soak up as much as a crew of 10, his friends said.

The oil-saturated mats will be seeded with oyster mushrooms, which soak up and biodegrade oil. The plan is to make compost.

Kill the Spill’s founders have managed to keep the pace up, rearranging their work lives around the beachfront campaign. Rosas sometimes put off his IT work until after dark, toiling away well past midnight.

“I have emergencies on the job all the time and I’m used to a really fast-moving environment,” he said. “I think it helped with this cleanup.”

Cleary says they’re likely to be at this for weeks. Several of the beaches they’ve helped clean are slated to be reopened in coming days. But others are still stained by oil -- and, as the friends see it, being neglected. They’re talking about forming a nonprofit company so they could bid to clean up a few Marin County beaches that remain off-limits to volunteer efforts.

If that doesn’t work, Egan says, they’ll still do what’s necessary, sneaking onto the sands in small stealth crews.

When it comes to the beloved bay, once guerrillas, always guerrillas.