Environment News Service (ENS)

Most of San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Not Recoverable

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Source: Environment News Service (ENS)

The latest overflight of San Francisco Bay and the nearby coastline shows very little recoverable oil offshore and inshore from last Wednesday's spill of 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel, the U.S. Coast Guard said today.

To date, seven miles of containment boom has been deployed to confine and collect oil in the water and six vessels are skimming and collecting oil.

The Coast Guard says 12,745 gallons of oil have been collected and about 580 gallons have dispersed naturally. An estimated 4,060 gallons of oil have evaporated. That leaves about 40,000 gallons of the heavy bunker fuel in the environment.

The spill has fouled miles of coastline. More than 1,500 people are responding, and 53 vessels are working to remediate the spill, the Coast Guard said. Cleanup efforts are transitioning from water recovery of the heavy oil to cleanup of environmentally sensitive areas of the shoreline.

On November 8, the oil spill occurred when the 902-foot-long container ship Cosco Busan, outward bound to Korea, struck the fender of surrounding a footing of the western span of the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay. The vessel collided with the structure although a pilot, Captain John J. Cota, was aboard.

The collision opened a gash 160 feet long and four feet deep in the vessel's hull, rupturing the fuel tanks. A federal investigation to determine the cause of the collision is underway.

The next day, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in the City and County of San Francisco and the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Mateo, Solano and Sonoma. The governor also suspended all fishing and shellfish harvesting in the area at least until December 1.

More than 12 hours after the collission, Coast Guard officials were still saying just 140 gallons had leaked, according to San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, who said the city would consider legal action against anyone found liable. Today, Mayor Newsom proclaimed the existence of a local emergency due to the spill.

City workers would have laid more boom out to contain the oil, if they had known sooner that they were looking at a 58,000 gallon spill, said a spokesman for the Mayor's Office.

The collision happened at 8:30 am, but Coast Guard Captain William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco, said Coast Guard personnel did not know the full extent of the spill until about 4 pm.

He rejected the idea that the crews could have contained the spill more quickly. 'We mobilized as if it was a big spill right away,' Uberti argued.

California Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein were critical of the Coast Guard's response. In a letter sent Thursday to U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Thad Allen, Boxer said she was 'very troubled by the Coast Guard's delay in delivering accurate information to the public and the city of San Francisco.'

In her letter, Feinstein requested, 'a full and expedited investigation into the cause of the accident as well as the Coast Guard’s response.'

But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents the San Francisco Bay Area, praised the Coast Guard. 'I commend Coast Guard Captain William Uberti and his team for the speed with which they established the Incident Command Team, engaged more than a dozen local, state, and federal agencies in the response, and moved rapidly to track and contain the oil spill. For example, barriers were quickly put in place to keep oil out of highly sensitive areas, including the marsh at Crissy Field,' Pelosi wrote.

Friends of the Earth is using the public attention focused on this spill of bunker fuel to call on Congress to require a complete phaseout of the heavy, asphalt-like substance that some experts predict will remain in the bay for many years.

'The dirty fuel that was spilled literally comes from the bottom of the barrel when oil is refined and is more than 1,000 times dirtier than the diesel fuel used in trucks and buses,' the environmental group says. 'This bunker fuel - which powers many cruise and cargo ships - pollutes the air, threatens human health, and causes global warming. And, as the accident in the San Francisco Bay demonstrates, this fuel also endangers marine life.'

In San Francisco, cleanup is complete at Pier 1-39 and 85 percent complete at Baker Beach and China Beach, but the contamination at Fort Funtson is just 20 percent cleaned up.

In Marin County, Stinson Beach is 80 percent cleaned up, while Rodeo and Muir beaches are about 60 percent cleaned, the Coast Guard said. Other Marin beaches are bout 25 percent cleaned up.

The San Francisco Baykeeper, a nonprofit watchdog group, says many of the affected beaches are in national parks, which are inhabited by threatened and endangered species like the Western snowy plover, and the coastal waters off the mouth of the Golden Gate are national marine sanctuaries.

The spill has been hard on seabirds. Of the 715 birds that were taken alive to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, 183 were able to be washed clean by trained wildlife rehabitation workers. As of last night 511 oiled birds had died.

Both the nonprofits and the oil spill professionals are warning the public to avoid areas and wildlife that are affected, as untrained people can cause further damage to the environment and stress on the wildlife.

Concerned citizens should call 415-701-2311 to report any sightings of oiled wildlife. This is a new number, and the number used previously is no longer in service.

People are advised to avoid contact with fuel slicks in the water or tarballs in the sand and to wash any exposed areas with soap and mineral oil upon exposure. Members of the public without training should not attempt to collect the oil, since it needs to be disposed of properly to prevent broader contamination and re-introduction to the environment, the Coast Guard warns.

The Coast Guard is asking people not to place oil from the Cosco Busan oil spill in trash receptacles. Oil and trash containing oil such as rags or paper towels should be double bagged, labeled as oily waste, and members of the public can call 415-398-9617 to have it picked up.

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