Overflowing tank pegged as culprit

An overfilled fuel tank caused a ship to spill hundreds of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay last month after operators failed to use the required containment equipment. Original reports blamed a ruptured fuel line.

West Coast shipping services company Foss Maritime was filling the Dubai Star tanker’s fuel tanks near San Francisco’s southern shoreline Oct. 30 when 400 to 800 gallons overflowed.

Foss Maritime’s barge was equipped with legally mandated oil containment equipment, but operators failed to use it to control the spill, according to California Office of Spill Prevention and Response counsel Steve Sawyer.

At least 36 birds were killed by the toxic bunker fuel, which washed onto East Bay shorelines. Cleanup efforts were still under way Monday at Robert Crown Memorial Beach in Alameda.

The onboard oil containment equipment, known as the boom, wasn’t deployed after the spill because the barge and all ship workers were on the other side of the vessel, Sawyer said.

Two tanks were being successively filled using the same fuel line, but fuel continued to be pumped into the first tank after it became full, causing it to overflow and spill, according to Sawyer.

“Foss didn’t realize there was a spill until the oil had already spilled and was half a mile away,” he said. “So it wouldn’t have done them any good to put the boom out.”

Sawyer said he expects to meet with investigators from his department Thursday to discuss their findings.

“We’re looking at the vessel transfer plan,” he said. “I’ve not seen that document, so I don’t know if there’s supposed to be somebody on both sides of the vessel.”

A fuel-line valve that should have prevented the overflow is being inspected, according to Sawyer.

“It’s either a situation where the valve wasn’t fully closed or it was defective,” he said.

Foss Maritime is cooperating with investigators, spokesman Sam Sacco said. The company employs 1,000 people at major West Coast ports, according to its Web site.

California regulations require fuel barges to carry oil-absorbing, buoyant boom or to preboom around a ship before fueling begins.

More than a dozen environmental and fishing groups, including San Francisco-based nonprofit Pacific Environment, sent a letter last week to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger calling on California to enhance and enforce those regulations.

“It’s paramount that prebooming be the norm,” Pacific Environment Program Director Jackie Dragon told The Examiner.

Avian disaster

4 Oiled East Bay shorelines closed after spill
20 Oiled birds found dead
16 Oiled birds that died after being rescued
10 Oiled birds rehabilitated and released

Source: California Department of Fish and Game

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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