State officials criticize response to spill

State lawmakers on Friday sharply criticized the slow response to the oil spill that soiled San Francisco Bay with 58,000 gallons of fuel earlier this month, saying they are frustrated by the lack of answers about what went wrong.

The initial report was of a spill of about 140 gallons, “the size of a large fish tank,” in the first crucial hours after the container ship Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge Nov. 7, said Sen. Dean Florez, chair of the Government Organization Committee. It was “absolutely unconscionable” to confuse such asmall spill with the nearly 60,000 gallons that actually were spreading across the bay, said Florez, D-Shaftner.

“I think it has shaken most people's confidence in the (spill response) program itself,” Florez said at Friday's joint hearing by two Senate committees.

Sen. Leland Yee, D-Daly City, blamed the U.S. Coast Guard for underestimating the extent of the spill, hobbling an early response. But he said state agencies also fumbled their responsibility during the bay's worst spill in nearly two decades. The spill closed fishing in the bay for more than three weeks and left thousands of birds coated in oil.

“I think we've learned that we cannot allow and permit one level of government to take the entire responsibility, because if they falter…we are now suffering the consequences,” Yee said at the Capitol hearing.

Senators were angered at the lack of ready answers from the state's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, which is a unit of the California Department of Fish and Game, and from the Gov.'s Office of Emergency Services.

Mark Newton, of the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, testified that the state's spill response office has 18 staff vacancies, 14 of them in the spill readiness area, despite a nearly $18 million surplus in the office's administrative fund.

Linda Sheehan, executive director of the California CoastKeeper Alliance and a member of the spill response office's advisory committee, said low salaries means it takes a year or more to fill some vacancies.

She criticized the state Department of Finance for ignoring its own finding in a 2005 audit that more employees were needed at the spill response agency.

“It was fairly inexplicable to us … after the Department of Finance said there was a problem that needed to be fixed,” Sheehan told senators.

Lisa Curtis, administrator of the state's spill response office, said her office has filled 27 of the 34 positions called for two years ago, and is hiring seven more employees this year.

But Sen. Darrell Steinberg, chairman of the natural resources committee, objected that 35 of the office's employees have been redirected to other duties when they are not actively responding to a spill.

“Playing the budget shell game has consequences, and here's the evidence,” Steinberg later told reporters. He also said it is evident the state relied too heavily on private cleanup companies without providing adequate state supervision.

Senators were frustrated that Curtis could not answer many of their questions because she said the complicated, large-scale spill response is still under way. Curtis said better answers will come from ongoing investigations and administrative reviews by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration.

“I acknowledge wholeheartedly … that there are lessons to be learned,” Curtis told senators. “We have improvements to make.”

Sen. Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, a member of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, threatened to subpoena the office's employees if detailed answers aren't furnished in coming weeks.

“We have dead birds, upset residents, we want to know,” said Migden, who later accused Curtis of being “a bit obstructionist.”

Coast Guard officials were not questioned at Friday's hearing because the focus is on what the state can do better, said Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

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