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Bay Area spill declared emergency

Coast Guard's response criticized as 58,000-gallon slick creeps up the coastline.

November 10, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday for the San Francisco Bay Area as an oil spill continued to coat some of the state's most storied coastline and imperil marine wildlife.

The declaration commits state money and resources for what he vowed would be an exhaustive battle to clean up the 58,000-gallon spill from the container vessel Cosco Busan.

The 810-foot ship smacked the base of a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge tower in dense fog Wednesday morning, breaching the vessel's hull and pouring bunker fuel into the bay.

U.S. Coast Guard officials said Friday that a full investigation of the accident was underway and apologized for delays in warning Bay Area officials and the public about the escalating scale of the spill.

The Coast Guard initially said that just 140 gallons of fuel had oozed out, and then failed to update local officials or the public for more than 12 hours as the extent of the spill grew.

Outraged by the delay, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom threatened legal action, and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) sent a testy letter to the Coast Guard commandant. On Friday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) also demanded accountability.

Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top officer in California and other Western states, said the delay was "not acceptable" but defended the emergency response as appropriately aggressive.

The initial cleanup crew -- a quick-strike response team operating a skimmer boat that vacuums oil residue off the water -- arrived at the site within 90 minutes, authorities said. By Thursday morning, , authorities had gotten aircraft to survey the scene and 11 skimmer boats had been dispatched.

"You always put out everything you can because you can always fall back," Bone said.

After the governor met with officials in San Francisco, he said he was satisfied with the pace and scope of the cleanup efforts.

His proclamation directed a state office that responds to spills to tap an industry-financed trust fund to help pay for the cleanup.

The owner of the Cosco Busan, Regal Stone Ltd. of Hong Kong, is already picking up the cost of the waterborne cleanup effort, which is being handled by a private firm. Coast Guard officials have vowed to hold the "responsible parties" accountable.

Although the oil slick remains largely inside the bay, tidal action and winds have spread the spill up the Marin County coastline as far as Stinson Beach, 15 miles north. A dozen beaches have been closed. Berkeley officials shut down their busy marina and stretched a boom across its mouth to keep out more oil.

State park officials shut down Angel Island, and the swim portions of two triathlons scheduled for this weekend were canceled.

Wildlife authorities said the number of birds caught in the spill continues to climb, with 94 taken in for treatment and 28 found dead. Scores of wildlife experts and volunteers are combing the shorelines for oil-blackened birds.

Meanwhile, the investigation into the cause of the accident continued as details emerged about the harbor captain who was piloting the vessel.

Capt. John Cota, 59, has been a master mariner for more than a quarter century. But since the early 1990s he has been investigated in four separate incidents and last year was issued a letter of reprimand for running a ship aground on a sandbar while navigating up the San Joaquin River, according to the Board of Pilot Commissioners.

In the Bay Area, where fierce tides and shifting channel beds make piloting giant vessels a testy chore, grounding is "generally not a big thing" because the vessels typically can push free of the mud without damage, said Capt. Patrick Moloney, the board's executive director.

Moloney said Cota had piloted more than 3,000 vessels in or out of Bay Area waters over a 27-year career.

His 99.95% safe transit record was only slightly below average for the 61 master mariners who ply Bay Area waters, Moloney said.

The incidents were relatively minor aside from running the ship aground, Moloney said.

Coast Guard investigators said Cota and the crew of the Cosco Busan tested negative for alcohol. Drug test results were not yet available.

Investigators were focusing Friday on potential miscommunications between the officer on watch and the helmsman, as well as shipping traffic authorities in the minutes before the accident.

Cota was interviewed Thursday morning by Coast Guard investigators and answered every question put to him, said G. Ross Wheatley, the chief investigator.

Various factors, including the fog, played into the delays in assessing how much fuel spilled, Coast Guard officials said.

--

eric.bailey@latimes.com

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