Cosco Busan's impact still not entirely clear

Nine months after an oil slick spread across the Bay from the Cosco Busan, the ship’s tarnished name has been scrubbed off its hull, but exhaustive cleanup efforts have failed to remove all of the spilled toxic fuel from area shorelines.

Evidence of the oily mess surfaced as recently as last month, with tar balls showing up on beaches north of Marin and in Alameda.

The November spill, the worst the Bay has seen in decades, occurred when the 900-foot container ship, which has since been renamed the Venezia, struck the Bay Bridge in heavy morning fog, ripping open two of its tanks and releasing more than 53,000 gallons of fuel.

The toxic spill killed thousands of birds, suspended fishing in the Bay and closed down numerous beaches. About one-third of the fuel was subsequently recovered, but another 30,000 gallons sank, evaporated or washed out to sea, officials said.

The cleanup effort is ongoing and isn’t expected to be completed until September, said Rob Roberts, the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response officer who has led state cleanup efforts. However, that doesn’t mean the fuel or its effects will be gone, he said.

In mid-June, roughly 80 gallons of sunken fuel washed up and closed Robert Crowne Memorial State Beach in Alameda County, said Carol Singleton, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Emergency Services. Days earlier, residue oil surfaced on Marin’s Rodeo Beach, the National Park Service said.

After the Cosco Busan spill, about 2,500 oiled birds from more than 50 species were collected; of the 1,084 birds found alive, just 421 survived, according to California Department of Fish and Game figures.

The effects of the spill on most vulnerable bird species, including brown pelicans, won’t be known until the fall, Golden Gate Audubon Society conservation director Eli Saddler said.

“A lot of the birds impacted were migratory waterfowl, and those birds are in Alaska and Canada or in northern parts of the U.S. right now,” he said.

Fishermen are facing the threat that the oil has had a deadly effect on fish eggs, reducing the Bay Area’s supply of herring and other baitfish.

Game-fish have been readily biting in the Bay this summer, but the bait most commonly used to catch them, anchovies, has virtually disappeared, career fisherman and Berkeley Marina bait-shop operator Dennis Deaver said.

Grunion, another type of baitfish, also have proved elusive this summer in the Bay, Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Karen Martin said.

“It’s possible they had a disruption of their food chain and it’s possible they weren’t able to get big enough to spawn,” Martin said. “There were areas that were oiled that we know grunion use for spawning.”

Much of the information on the spill’s effects on the Bay ecology hasn’t been shared publicly while the analysis is ongoing, according to environment advocates.

“We have a basic understanding of the potential biological endpoints that people are worried about, but we don’t really know what the results of the analysis are saying,” said scientist Jen Kovecses, who works with the San Francisco-based water-watchdog Baykeeper.

Data collection could be finished as soon as November, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Al Donner.

“It will still take time to quantify,” he said.

The assessment will help the state and federal governments charge the ship’s owners and operators for the damages wrought by the spill, so the money can be spent on restoration projects, Donner said.

Cleanup and restoration costs are expected to top $60 million, according to court filings by the Hong Kong-based owner and operator of the Cosco Busan, which has blamed the U.S. government for the disaster.

Coast Guard tackling problems at spill’s core

U.S. Coast Guard officials say changes made immediately after the spill will prevent some of the problems that unfolded after the Cosco Busan crashed into the Bay Bridge.

Initial statements from state and federal officials estimated that about 140 gallons of fuel had spilled into the Bay following the ship’s 8:30 a.m. collision with the Bay Bridge. Only after dusk were local governments and media informed that more than 50,000 gallons of low-grade shipping fuel had gushed out into the water.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Gugg — who took over leadership of the multi-agency cleanup team seven days after the accident and was later appointed commander of the agency’s San Francisco sector — defended the spill response, but conceded that initial underestimates of its size may have caused other agencies “to not get spun up” about the mess.

To prevent similar underestimates in the future, the Coast Guard will report the potential volume of a spill based on the size of the ruptured tank, Gugg said.

The Coast Guard also came under fire because its Vessel Traffic Service, a Yerba Buena Island-based operation that watches boat traffic from the Pacific Ocean to Sacramento, did little to prevent the accident. The five-person team now will have a “more proactive role” when it comes to guiding ships, particularly in heavy fog, Gugg said.

The vessel service now will enforce a new guideline that bars ships from venturing into fog when visibility is less than a half-mile, Gugg said.

Additionally, a new Coast Guard response boat has been purchased and moored at the Richmond Marina. Investigations found that inexperienced Coast Guard officials were deployed to assess the situation while a California Office of Spill Response official was stuck on land waiting hours for a boat to take him to the fog-shrouded scene.

John Upton

Charges against pilot to be discussed this week

Federal charges against John Cota, the man who piloted the Cosco Busan into the thick November fog and into the Bay Bridge, are slated to be discussed at a hearing Friday before a U.S. district judge in San Francisco.

The U.S. Justice Department charged Cota with two felony counts of lying about his health in pilot license applications and with two misdemeanor counts of breaking environmental laws.

Last month, his attorneys asked a federal judge to dismiss the charges.

Cota also has announced that he will retire as a state-licensed pilot Oct. 1.

In a civil lawsuit, the U.S. Justice Department has sought damages and cleanup costs from Cota, from the Cosco Busan’s Hong Kong-based owners and operators Regal Stone and Fleet Management, and from Cosco Busan insurer Shipowners’ Insurance and Guaranty. The federal government secured an $80 million bond from the vessel’s owners before releasing it from U.S. waters.

In a counterclaim, the ship’s owner and operator say the U.S. and California governments caused the spill by, among other things, licensing a pilot who was “medically unfit and incompetent” to perform his duties and by placing him on their boat. The claim says damages from the incident could exceed $60 million.

The U.S. Justice Department continues to hold six senior members of the container ship’s Chinese crew in the United States as witnesses.

San Francisco secured an initial compensation payout of $2 million for damages caused by the oil spill as the result of an agreement struck between city officials and the Cosco Busan owners and operators.

— John Upton

Protecting the Bay from future spills

State lawmakers introduced numerous bills following widespread criticism of the tardy, ineffective and uncoordinated emergency response by various government agencies and cleanup companies. However, none of these bills has become law, and some face powerful opposition.

SB 1056

Author: State Sen. Carole Migden

What it would do: Would require the state to immediately report oil spills to counties and to respond to spills within two hours, instead of the current six-hour limit.

Status: Passed Senate, awaiting Assembly vote.

AB 2547

Author: Assemblymember Mark Leno

What it would do: Cleanup companies would be required to respond to a spill in the Bay with modern equipment within 30 minutes. The bill also creates a $5 million grant program to help develop new oil containment and cleanup equipment.

Status: Passed Assembly, awaiting Senate vote.

AB 2935

Author: Assemblymember Jared Huffman

What it would do: Would create a program to quickly train volunteers after an oil spill to help cleanup operations. Fishermen would be hired as cleanup workers.

<strong>Status: Passed Assembly, awaiting Senate vote.

AB 2031

Author: Assemblymember Loni Hancock

What it would do: Ship owners would be required to provide spill volume estimate updates to the California Office of Emergency.

Status: Passed Assembly, awaiting Senate vote.

SB 965

Author: State Sen. Alan Lowenthal

What it would do: State would analyze tides, currents, winds and other natural phenomenon to better predict the movement of oil spills.

Status: In Senate

AB 2032

Author: Assemblymember Loni Hancock

What it would do: State could raise an additional $18 million per year by increasing a maximum tax on crude oil and gasoline for an Oil Spill Prevention and Administration Fund from 5 cents a barrel to 8 cents if becomes law.

Status: Passed Assembly, awaiting Senate vote.

— John Upton

By the numbers: The Cosco Busan oil spill’s heavy toll

53,569: Gallons of fuel spilled

2,519*: Birds killed by the oil

168: Cleanup workers on the first day of the disaster

1,399: Cleanup workers on day seven

50: Miles of coastline oiled

3*: Mammals killed by the oil


Sources: California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Coast Guard

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