County steels itself for oil spill’s impact

It took less than a week for balls of tar and the rainbow shimmer of oil to mar San Mateo County beaches after last Wednesday’s Cosco Busan spill at the Bay Bridge, and local leaders are calling for safeguards against damage to the economy and ecology of the Peninsula.

After Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, called for the U.S. Coast Guard to patrol the coast of San Mateo County by helicopter to assess the full impact of the spill, County Supervisor Jerry Hill said it may be time to look at legislation to make sure that the Coast Guard’s slow response to the leak is not repeated. San Francisco leaders have also called for similar legislation.

“When you look at the response from the Coast Guard, and the notification and the time delays in terms of mitigation, all of those things are indicating that this whole process needs a serious review,” Hill said.

Coast Guard officials have acknowledged the delay in contacting local authorities after 58,000 gallons of oil spilled from the gash in the cargo ship’s hull.

It took five days for tar balls to come ashore in Pacifica, causing the San Mateo County Environmental Health Division to close down all of Pacifica’s beaches. On Thursday, San Francisco crabbers stayed off the water, fearing bad publicity from the spill would mean consumers would not want to eat crab from the area.

Eshoo said the oil could also threaten the Año Nuevo State Reserve — an elephant seal breeding ground — and the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, a popular location for outdoor education and recreation.

“The seriousness of it goes well beyond a little oil on the beach; it’s the natural reserves we have there; it’s the wildlife on what may be some of the most beautiful beaches in the state,” Hill said. “A rapid response would have solved most of this problem, and that needs to be thoroughly looked at.”

So far, 28 live and two dead birds were brought in to the Peninsula Humane Society, where the birds were stabilized before being sent to the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Cordelia, said San Mateo County Health Department spokeswoman Beverly Thames.

Thames said observations from boats and planes suggest the oil slick is not moving any farther south and has begun to dissipate, but the county has not yet said when beaches would reopen. County workers are trying to help boat owners in the county’s harbors safely clean oil from their vessels.

jgoldman@examiner.com  

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