Richmond mayor buries stinky whale carcass

Officials recommend leaving whale carcass 'undisturbed' to 'decompose in place'
Deceased whale on the shoreline (Photos by Kathy Chouteau)

UPDATE: The story was updated to reflect new information at 3:23 p.m. Thursday, June 9.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt arranged to have the carcass of a Gray Whale that is decomposing on the city’s shoreline buried today, an action that went against a recommendation by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to leave the carcass undisturbed “to continue to decompose in place.”

The deceased whale recently washed up on Richmond’s shoreline and was causing residents of the nearby Waterline housing development distress due to its pervasive stench.

In a letter to the city on Wednesday, a representative of the USACE —  the agency responsible for keeping large bodies of water free of large debris — offered a timeline on how the deceased whale ended up on Richmond’s shoreline, and stressed that the decomposing animal “does not pose a threat to life safety.”

The USACE said it considered the possibility of burying the whale, but decided the process to obtain permits to do so would take long enough that it was best just to let the whale continue to decompose in its current spot. The permitting process could be accelerated in “emergent conditions,” but the USACE said this matter doesn’t pose a safety problem.

“To be clear, the odor is undeniable, however, the gases that produce the smells of rotting flesh are only known to be toxic in very high concentrations typical of enclosed/confined spaces,” the agency letter stated. “We are recommending that whale be left undisturbed to continue to decompose inplace. Our observations with past placements on Angel Island suggest a month long process.”

Mayor Butt decided to go a different direction and arranged to have the whale buried.

“Today, a very good local contractor, W.R. Forde, brought in a tracked excavator and gave the creature a proper burial in about an hour,” the mayor announced on his e-forum newsletter.

Image of whale burial courtesy of Richmond Mayor Tom Butt.

The mayor said his action was inspired by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who stated at last week’s U.S. Conference of Mayors in Reno: “Mayors get things done. As a mayor, people look to you as the ultimate problem solver. You are never off the clock.”

When confronted with this whale of a situation, Mayor Butt says he took the vice president’s words to heart.

“Permits? If anyone asks, Kamala made me do it,” the mayor said.

According to USACE, the whale carcass was first reported April 4 in a shoreline area near Alameda. The following day, the whale had moved into a navigation channel near Alameda. A USACE boat was called to help secure and remove the whale as it posed a hazard to navigation in the channel and surroudning areas. While historically the USACE along with partners would transport the whale to Angel Island or tow it out of the Golden Gate, the former option is unavailable and the latter has proven to be “inconsistent in its effectiveness,” according to USACE.

Deceased whale disrupts Richmond residents with foul odor
Deceased whale on the shoreline (Photos by Kathy Chouteau)

Unable to place the whale at Angel Island, the USACE boat transported the whale to port in Sausalito, and it was decided on April 8 to tow the deceased whale to a sheltered area in shallow water near Brooks Island, located near Richmond. The carcass remained anchored near Brooks Island until about May 25, but then floated away and ended up in its current location.

At this point, the state of the whale carcass has presented a number of new challenges.

“In short, the effort determined the carcass to be impaled/anchored on relic infrastructure, and in a state of advanced decay,” the USACE states. “Both conditions contributed to a decision to abandon a waterborne tow, as such an operation would be expected to tear apart the remaining carcass, and amplify the problem.”

With the process to obtain permits to bury the whale expected to take “weeks,” the USACE ultimately determined “not to take further action in the field.”

The mayor decided he would just do it himself.

In his e-forum newsletter, Mayor Butt charged the USACE with placing the whale in Richmond believing the community wouldn’t “make a stink” as much as “Tiburon or Alameda.” He believes the city should have been consulted on the whale’s placement and that state and federal officials should have done more to help.

“Incidentally, but totally unrelated, I am a former US Army Corps of Engineers combat engineer Vietnam veteran,” Mayor Butt said. “It was a long time ago, but that’s where I learned to just get things done.”

In Wednesday’s letter to the city, USACE officials indicated they’ve been communicating with city officials and affected residents over the past two weeks. They also said they are committed to “measures that avoid a similar outcome at any point in the future.”

“We intend to reenergize efforts with our partners on the water to determine safe and reliable locations to dispose of dead whale carcasses that find their way into navigable waters of the San Francisco Bay,” the agency’s letter states.