San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Investigated

Federal authorities are investigating a massive oil spill in the San Francisco Bay after a Hong Kong-owned cargo ship smashed into the Bay bridge. The 58,000 gallons of fuel has defiled some 40 miles of beaches.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We are reporting this morning on the high price and the cost of the oil economy. The price remains near a record, more than $93 per barrel, even after dropping this week. The cost is evident in two oil spills half a world apart.

WERTHEIMER: The first was in San Francisco Bay. That's where a cargo ship smashed into a bridge last week. This week people are battling to clean up 58,000 gallons of fuel oil.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY: The tight crescent of Rodeo Beach lies just outside into the north of the Golden Gate. The blue surf curls and crashes here as it always does. But when you look a little closer, you see dozens of men in white hazmat suits stuffing soiled material into plastic bags, which are then piled onto all-terrain vehicles and taken off the beach. The ship's owner hired the clean-up crew here, and the crew boss wasn't about to let reporters onto the beach.

Could you just tell me why I can't get in here?

Unidentified Man: No, sir.

McCHESNEY: You can't tell me why I can't get in?

Unidentified Man: It's our work zone.

McCHESNEY: It's a work zone, but it's perfectly wide open.

Unidentified Man: Would you like the phone number too?

McCHESNEY: Well, the phone number from somebody who isn't here can't tell me much - much about what's going on right here, can they?

Unidentified Man: Okay.

McCHESNEY: What do you guys see out there? I mean, do you see a lot of oil, a little bit of oil?

Unidentified Man: Would you like the phone number?

McCHESNEY: We called that phone number and got an answering machine. Hundreds of angry volunteers who showed up to help on area beaches got the same response: go away. But they went out on the sand anyway and began sopping up the oil. The tension evident here is probably the result of the finger pointing about who's responsible for this mess. The Coast Guard is being criticized for waiting hours before telling the public the spill was much worse than originally reported, and the Coast Guard's Rear Admiral Craig Bone says that heavy fog is no excuse for running into the bridge.

Rear Admiral CRAIG BONE (U.S. Coast Guard): There's no reason because you're in fog that this incident should have occurred. The crew was new to that vessel. But that's one of the reasons that we have a state and federally licensed pilot to guide the ship through the port.

McCHESNEY: The ship is equipped with radar and GPS electronics. And the pilot, by law, is put onboard because he has intimate knowledge of local conditions. In this case, the pilot was 25 year veteran Captain John Cota, who quickly radioed authorities that the ship had, quote, "touched the bridge." That touch opened a 90 foot gash in the Cosco Busan, rupturing its fuel tank. Captain Cota's lawyer said Cota felt hardly anything on the ship and assumed there wasn't much damage. Local news reports say Cota was reprimanded last year for running the ship aground.

Congressman George Miller too was mystified as to how this could have happened after all the regulations governing ship traffic in the Bay's obstacle course.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We have one of the most modern tracking systems in the world in this port because the volume of traffic and the danger to the Bay and to the estuary. But it did not provide the margin of safety that we needed at this moment.

McCHESNEY: Thirty-six hundred commercial ships enter the San Francisco Bay each year, many of them oil tankers from the Alaska. Those tankers are required to have a double hull to prevent leaks after a collision. But freighters with exposed fuel tanks like the Cosco Busan are not similarly regulated. After this incident, environmentalists and local officials say double hulls should become mandatory.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

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Ship's Pilot Did Not Immediately Notice Oil Spill

The harbor pilot under investigation for San Francisco Bay's biggest oil spill in 20 years did not immediately realize the severity of the crash that led to the leak, his lawyer has said.

Capt. John Cota was in charge when the Cosco Busan struck a bridge support last week, opening a 90-foot gash in the hull that dumped 58,000 gallons into the bay, fouling miles of coastline.

"He has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn't much damage," said John Meadows, an attorney for Cota.

At the time, Cota had radioed authorities to report the vessel had "touched" the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

Federal prosecutors investigating the incident are focusing on problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship's bridge at the time. Among other things, the ship was under new ownership and management, and the crew's experience on the vessel appears to have been limited, officials said.

Investigators want to know if the ship's pilot played down the incident, preventing authorities from relaying accurate information to the public.

"The comments made or the actions taken by individuals are all things that they could be held accountable for," Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the top Coast Guard officer in California, said Monday.

Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a Coast Guard spokesman, said "one of the aspects of the investigation is, were the reports made accurate" after the collision.

Scott Schools, the acting U.S. attorney for Northern California, confirmed that his office was asked to investigate, but declined to elaborate.

Cosco Busan crew members were questioned on board the vessel. Bone said the owners and operators of the ship would unquestionably face civil penalties.

"I know we have a civil penalty just because we have a spill," he said. "There will at least be a civil penalty action, if not a criminal."

Darrell Wilson, a representative for Hong Kong-based Regal Stone, which owns the Cosco Busan, said the company was eager to hear the results of the investigation.

"From the beginning of the incident, Regal Stone has come forward and been very proactive and engaged with law enforcement officials," Wilson said. "We take our job of environmental stewardship very seriously."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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