Firm: 'Not enough' responders to oil spill

Power tools, oil skimmers and boats that could have been used to contain and clean fuel from the surface of San Francisco Bay sat idle last week, as the company contracted to clean up the Cosco Busanfuel spill waited for hundreds of qualified emergency workers to fly to San Francisco from as far away as Alaska and Massachusetts.

The O’Brien’s Group disaster management company was hired by insurers of Hong Kong-based Regal Stone Ltd., which owns the 900-foot container ship, immediately after the vessel clipped the Bay Bridge. The company was given the task of coordinating subcontractor efforts to contain and clean the 58,000 gallons of ship fuel that gushed into the Bay.

A handful of employees of the Marine Spill Response Corporation, hired by The O’Brien’s Group to help mop up the mess, sent an unsigned letter to state lawmakers this week criticizing the speed and effectiveness of the cleanup.

“There were not enough dedicated, qualified responders in the Bay Area available to help with the cleanup and recovery efforts immediately following the incident,” the employees wrote in the letter to state Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, and state Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco.

A shortage of qualified responders in the Bay Area at the time of the spill meant most of the fuel had dispersed over a large area before qualified staff were in place, according to the letter.

“Industry officials have been understaffing their dedicated spill response operations in the Bay Area and elsewhere,” the employees wrote, “because there are no rules to prevent them from doing so.”

The letter adds another layer of criticism in the aftermath of the environmental disaster: The ship’s pilot says cleanup crews took 90 minutes to reach the boat; city officials have complained that their offers of help were ignored by the U.S. Coast Guard; and Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti on Wednesday was demoted from the response team back to regular duties as commander of the San Francisco office for failing to report the size of the spill to other agencies.

The practice of “cascading,” in which emergency crews are flown from other states to use local equipment for the management of oil spills and other disasters, was blamed for slowing cleanup efforts in the anonymous letter, and by Inland Boatmen’s Union spokesman Craig Merrilees, who said he represents the authors of the letter.

Barry McFarland, a spokesman for the O’Brien’s Group, which coordinated cleanup companies and cleanup efforts, defended the speed of the effort and said hundreds of people “cascaded in” to The City “in an extremely short time” to help manage the spill from such places as Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.

jupton@examiner.com

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