Oil spew may reverberate for decades

The 58,000 gallons of fuel that poured from the container ship below the Bay Bridge is among the cheapest, dirtiest fuels available that contains toxic chemicals that will contaminate the Bay for years, turning the clock back on decades of work on water-quality improvements, environmentalists said Thursday.

As oil-slicked birds — both dead and alive — arrived on shorelines Thursday, the threat to the Bay’s delicate marine life as well as commercial industry remained unclear. Dozens of beaches have been closed and surfing, swimming and fishing have been banned.

“The effects of the oil spill could persist for months and possibly years,” said Tina Swanson, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute.

Seabirds are the most visible victims so far. Wildlife rescue workers and volunteers combing beaches have found dozens of dead and injured seabirds coated in oil, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Ten to 15 teams will be dispatched to search for more oiled birds today.

More than 30 oiled birds, mostly surf scoters that live on the water’s surface, were taken to a mobile treatment center in San Francisco’s Fort Mason on Thursday, Ziccardi said. Most of them will be taken to a wildlife care center in Solano County to be cleaned and rehabilitated before being released into the wild.

Concerns on the effect on the region’s food chain are also being raised.

Herring, the Bay’s only commercially fished species, spawn at this time of year, and the spill could affect the fishing season that begins in January, said Zeke Grader, who heads the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association.

The spill could threaten steelhead and chinook salmon that travel through the Bay to spawning grounds in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers during the fall, Grader said.

Scientists also are worried about the spill’s effect on the longfin smelt, whose population has reached record low levels this year.

The bunker fuel contains a host of toxic chemicals that could contaminate the Bay for many years, said Sejal Choksi of San Francisco Baykeeper. She noted that Suisun Marsh, northeast of San Francisco Bay, is still suffering from a pipeline accident that spilled 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel in 2004.

“The pollutants will enter the food chain,” Choksi said. “We’re looking at pollution that will probably last decades.”

— Staff and wire reports

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