Coast Guard grilled on reaction to spill

As oil from a damaged cargo ship spilled into the San Francisco Bay on Wednesday, high-ranking city officials sat unaware of the scope and size of the environmental problem that now encompasses areas from Hunters Point and Point Richmond through the Golden Gate to Ocean Beach and Stinson Beach.

Initial reports of the amount of toxic oil that gushed into the Bay from the hull of the 900-foot Cosco Busan after it crashed into the base of the Bay Bridge on Wednesday morning at about 8:30 a.m. was roughly 140 gallons.

However, it wasn’t until about seven hours later that it become apparent the oil spill was one of the biggest in the Bay in almost two decades, dumping 58,000 gallons of fuel that threatens miles of pristine coastline and hundreds of Bay species.

The underreported size of the fuel leakage has city officials questioning the Coast Guard’s response to the accident.

“We’re going to get to the bottom of what happened and what didn’t happen,” Mayor Gavin Newsom said Thursday. He said he was not informed of the extent of the spill until roughly 10 p.m. Wednesday. “There’s going to be action by The City, legal action. And there’s going to be new protocols that we put in place to make sure this never happens again in the future.”

U.S. Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, the federal on-scene coordinator, rejected any suggestion that the spill could have been contained more quickly. However, the log also suggests that both the ship’s crew and some Coast Guard personnel vastly underestimated the scope of the spill at first.

The Coast Guard began receiving reports from its own personnel that suggested a much bigger spill, including oil washing up on piers miles away, and “oiled birds and wildlife.” Yet at 4:49 p.m., more than eight hours after the collision, a team of officials from the Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Game, and the San Francisco Police Department estimated “400 gallons in the water total,” according to the log.

Uberti disputed that, saying Coast Guard personnel knew the full extent of the spill by around 4 p.m. He said the Coast Guard and private response firms responded immediately after the incident, and he rejected any suggestion that the crews could have contained the spill more quickly.

“We mobilized as if it was a big spill right away,” Uberti said.

About 9,500 gallons of fuel had been recovered by late Thursday and 18,000 thousand feet of boom, a protective barrier for the shoreline, had been laid out. As many as 11 boats skimmed the Bay and ocean beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, attempting to suck up the oil.

Helicopters hung over the Bay most of the day, assessing the damage as teams walked local beaches, scooping up oil as well as oil-soaked sea life, both dead and alive.

dsmith@examiner.com

Examiner Staff Writer Bonnie Eslinger and the AP contributed to this report.

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