Oil Spill Along Coastline

Friday, November 9th 2007, 3:43 pm
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) Most of the oil that spilled into San Francisco Bay when a container ship struck the Bay Bridge will never be retrieved and eventually will be absorbed into the ecosystem, authorities said Friday.

The U.S. Coast Guard, which was heading the response to the 58,000-gallon spill, acknowledged miscommunication with local officials, but insisted it didn't impede their efforts to corral the oil.

Tides carried the heavy fuel that poured from the ship's oil tank under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, fouling miles of coastline, closing several beaches, canceling weekend outdoor events and threatening thousands of birds and other marine life. It is believed to be the biggest spill in the bay since 1988.

Oil skimmers and shoreline cleanup crews continued mopping up the damage. But as the oil spreads and dissipates, crews will find ``diminishing returns'' in their skimming efforts, said Barry McFarley, whose private recovery firm the O'Brien Group was hired by the ship's owner to handle its response to the spill.

On Friday, 9,500 gallons of oil had been sucked up. Lt. Rob Roberts, an investigator with the California Department of Fish and Game, said by the weekend most of the oil will be beyond containment and capture. Most of the fuel will dissolve into the water, but some globules could remain and cause problems for birds for months.

``Oil and feathers don't mix,'' said Yvonne Addassi, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. ``This is not good for the birds.''

Fish and Game officials said they have received hundreds of reports of oiled birds found on Bay Area beaches. So far, 73 live birds have been recovered and sent to a recovery center in Solano County; 17 were found dead.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency after meeting with state, federal and local officials overseeing the cleanup. The proclamation makes additional state personnel, funding and equipment available.

``This has done tremendous damage to the environment, to wildlife and to the birds,'' Governor Schwarzenegger said. ``We have to clean up as quickly as possible.''
City officials have said they weren't given accurate information about the size of the spill until 9 p.m. Wednesday, more than 12 hours after the accident.

A new set of Coast Guard logs that surfaced Friday suggested the agency had concluded by 4:49 p.m. that 58,000 gallons had spilled, rather than the 140 gallons reported earlier. That contradicted a different Coast Guard log obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday. It said that at 4:49 p.m., the Coast Guard believed 400 gallons had escaped.

Rear Admiral Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California, conceded the agency should have done a better job keeping local authorities informed.

``That is not acceptable,'' said Admiral Bone, who didn't explain the delay but insisted the Coast Guard's response to the incident was immediate and aggressive.

Senator Barbara Boxer criticized the Coast Guard's response in a letter to Commandant Admiral Thad W. Allen, and Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city would have responded differently if it knew the full scale of the spill.

Admiral Bone said Friday ``their concerns were warranted.''

The ship, called Cosco Busan, had just left the Port of Oakland and was proceeding to sea when it hit a tower beneath the western section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. It caused no structural damage to the span, but the vessel's hull suffered a large gash.

Investigators continue to puzzle over why the ship, one of hundreds that pass under the bridge each year, struck the tower. The pilot, Captain John Cota, was one of the most experienced of the seamen who guide massive ships through the bay's treacherous waters.

``How does a ship, with that much space available, how does a ship hit the bridge?''
Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Coast Guard officials as he was shown a map of the bay and where the vessel struck the bridge.

``That's what we're investigating,'' answered Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco. ``That shouldn't have happened.''

According to chief investigator G. Ross Wheatley, the pilot and the shipping company could face civil penalties. Wheatley said Captain Cota had answered every question asked of him.