Coast Guard admiral grilled about spill

The crash of a cargo ship into a bridge tower in San Francisco Bay that spilled 58,000 gallons of toxic fuel was solely the ship operator's fault, a high-ranking Coast Guard officer told a congressional panel.

Rear Adm. Craig Bone on Monday told the panel investigating the crash that human error aboard the Cosco Busan led to the Nov. 7 crash, which contaminated miles of coastline around the San Francisco Bay and killed hundreds of birds.

“Something tragic must have taken place on board the ship,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Craig Bone said. If the pilot and master “had carried out their responsibilities, we wouldn't be sitting here today.”

Ten lawmakers questioned Bone about whether the Coast Guard could have done more towarn the ship it was in trouble. They asked Bone why the agency waited hours to inform city officials of the spill and why it did not press fishermen and volunteers into service sooner.

Mayor Gavin Newsom told the lawmakers that the first hint the city got of a major problem was when a part-time fire boat operator radioed that “something was going on” – about 12 hours after the crash. The Coast Guard never informed the city, which could have mobilized forces including volunteers, Newsom said.

“Notification was lax,” he said. “In fact, arguably, there was no notification, even of 140 gallons of oil being spilled.”

Bone acknowledged that the Coast Guard was too slow to inform city officials.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, said she planned to ask the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general, Richard Skinner, to conduct his own investigation.

That would be in addition to ongoing probes by the U.S. attorney's office here, the National Transportation Safety Board, California government agencies and Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings' House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

The Coast Guard said Monday it was initiating a nationwide “incident-specific preparedness review” to ensure its personnel in other regions would be ready for such a disaster.

The pilot, Capt. John Cota, has told NTSB investigators there were indications of problems with his two radars and his grasp of electronic charts before the ship left its berth. But Bone said the pilot reported no such problems to the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service that morning.

“If a pilot tells someone that his radar doesn't work, then gets under way, then he basically puts himself in a position where he's already placed the vessel at risk on his own accord,” Bone told The Associated Press by telephone.

Bone also rejected criticism that thetraffic service should have done more to warn the ship it might be in trouble. The service had asked Cota his intentions less than two minutes before the crash but had gone silent after that, the NTSB reported.

Service personnel are trained “not to distract the pilot with interruptions during any critical maneuver,” Bone told lawmakers.

Bone told lawmakers the cleanup was “one of the most successful cleanups” he'd seen. Almost one-third of the 58,000 gallons of the spilled fuel has been recovered, the joint command overseeing the response reported Monday.

“As oil spills go, five to 20 percent is what you see” typically recovered, Bone said.

Rep. George Miller responded that if a 20 percent recovery rate is considered good, a new emphasis must be placed on prevention.

“That's just not going to work,” Miller said.

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