Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Major Oil Spill Causes Problems in the San Francisco Bay

By Anastacia Mott Austin

Questions are being asked about the underreporting of the amount of oil spilled in this week’s San Francisco Bay Area accident between a container ship and the Bay Bridge.

The ship, the 810-foot Cocso Busan from South Korea, had just left the port of Oakland and was moving out to sea when it collided with the Bay Bridge in a heavy fog.

Initial reports from the ship itself were that 140 gallons of bunker fuel had leaked into the water. However, a later assessment revealed that in fact 58,000 gallons had spilled. Bunker fuel is one of the heaviest, least-refined petroleum products, and pedestrians noted the noxious "gasoline-like" smell that permeated the air around the bay.

The ship’s pilot, Captain John Cota, and crew members were all tested for alcohol levels, which were negative. The captain stated that the heavy fog caused visibility problems, contributing to both the crash and the difficulty in assessing the extent of the spill.

The California Department of Fish and Game and the Coast Guard sent out absorbent skimmers to prevent the oil slick from spreading, but the inevitable tidal movements have already carried some of the oil to shorelines as far as 20 miles from the spill.

Local criticism is being leveled at the Coast Guard for not accurately reporting the scope of the leak. City of San Francisco officials still were being told it was a small spill 12 hours after the incident. A representative for San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, Nathan Ballard, told reporters, "We would have responded differently if we had accurate information from the get-go."

But the Coast Guard responded to the critique, saying they didn’t report the new figures because "We were kind of busy...figuring this stuff out," said United States Coast Guard Captain William Uberti to the press, adding, "We mobilized as if it was a big spill right away."

As of Thursday, the day after the accident, only about 9,500 gallons of the 58,000 gallon spill had been cleaned up. A privately-owned cleanup company, O’Brien’s Group of southern California, has been hired by the ship’s owners to help out. Barry McFarland, a spokesperson for the company, has told reporters that there are eight vessels employed in the cleanup effort, with 18,000 feet of "containment boom," and 115 employees working on the beaches. When asked how long it might take to finish the task, McFarland said, "It's too early to tell any timeline. We'll be here for quite some time."

Wildlife groups remain very concerned about the effect of the spill on local birds and sea animals who live in the bay waters.

The environmental group Save the Bay told the press it had been inundated with volunteers offering to help with local birds who have been spotted covered in oil.

"It’s just heartbreaking," said local bird lover Sally McFadden, 49, who volunteered to help. "This is peak migration season for birds, and all the birdwatchers are excited about it - so it's at a particularly bad time," said McFadden to reporters at The San Francisco Chronicle, adding, "It’s disturbing."

California governor Arnold Shwarzenegger toured the area and declared it a state emergency to help release state funds for the rescue and cleanup efforts. "How does a ship, with that much space available, how does a ship hit the bridge?" asked the governor.

Responded Uberti, "That’s what we’re investigating. That shouldn’t have happened."