November 8, 2007
San Francisco Bay Spill Largest Since ’96
A cargo ship collision with the Bay Bridge on Wednesday leaked 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, the largest oil spill inside the bay in at least a decade.
Throughout the day, U.S. Coast Guard crewsworked to surround the spill with floating boom, removing at least 8,000 gallons with skimmer ships and absorbent pads, said spokesman U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Anderson.
"The Coast Guard is committed to protecting the environment. We are deploying all available resources to clean it up," he said.
The effect on wildlife was unknown by late Wednesday night. At first, Coast Guard officials said the spill had only resulted in 140 gallons of bunker fuel entering the water. But by 10 p.m., the agency upgraded the amount to 58,000 gallons.
The spill occurred when a container ship, the Cosco Busan, bound from Oakland to South Korea, hit a barrier on a tower of the bridge.
As the oil spread, it began hitting major landmarks in the water around San Francisco.
"By 1 p.m. oil hit the rocks at Alcatraz," said Chris Powell, a spokeswoman for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "By 2 p.m., the sheen was on the beach at Crissy Field. By 3 p.m., it was on the rocks at Fort Point."
Powell said the National Park Service closed six beaches Wednesday afternoon: Crissy Field, China Beach, and Baker Beach in San Francisco, along with Rodeo Beach, Kirby Cove and Black Sands Beach in Marin County.
She said it
was unknown what the impact is on wildlife.
"We certainly are concerned about wildlife. The concern is how widespread this is going to go along the coast.'
The sheen, she said, appeared to be moving west, under the Golden Gate and into the Pacific Ocean. Coast Guard reports also placed it as far north as Dillon Beach and as far south as Hunters Point.
"We are concerned. We take this very seriously," said Powell. "We want to make sure we do our best to protect the visitors and the wildlife. We're going to have a sleepless night tonight."
For years biologists have been concerned that a significant oil spill inside San Francisco Bay could cause major environmental damage. The reason? The bay has only one narrow opening at the Golden Gate, and the right combination of currents could push oil south, coating sensitive San Mateo, Alameda and Santa Clara County marshes, which are home to fish, birds and harbor seals.
Wednesday, signs were posted warning the public not to swim or fish in several areas, and a hot line was set up to take reports of fouled wildlife.
Anderson said the agency came up with the preliminary estimates by taking water samples from the bay and comparing the liquid load on the vessel before and after the crash. "It's a fairly complicated process," he said.
The last spill of this magnitude happened in 1996, when the Cape Mohican, a military reserve vessel, spilled 40,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay near Pier 70.
Prior to that, an explosion on another ship, the Puerto Rican, spilled 1.5 million gallons of oil in the open ocean off the Golden Gate in 1984.
By comparison, the Exxon Valdez spill was 11 million gallons.
About 8:30 a.m., the 810-foot vessel struck the base of the second suspension tower west of Yerba Buena Island, cutting a gash estimated to be about 80 feet long and 20 feet wide toward the front of the ship's left side. After the collision, the fuel evaporated into noxious fumes that wafted toward San Francisco's Financial District.
The incident prompted the involvement of more than a dozen local, state and federal agencies, dealing with a myriad of issues ranging from international shipping and harbor piloting to air quality and the welfare of the Bay's aquatic creatures.
The collision had no effect on the bridge or anyone driving across it, and Caltrans engineers who examined the structure determined that the vessel did not make contact with the actual concrete abutment, said Caltrans Bay Bridge spokesman Bart Ney.
But the impact damaged the vessel, owned by South Korean Hanjin Shipping. It was carrying containers for the China Ocean Shipping Co.
Once the ship's crew and the Coast Guard had transferred fuel from the breached tank and contained the spill with absorbent foam barriers, it was moved across the Bay to Anchorage Nine, offshore from the former naval station in Alameda.
The ship's owner was in the process of hiring contractors to further clean the spill, which also left a 3-foot-wide trail as the ship crossed the bay.
The Coast Guard prohibited boats from getting within 100 yards of the ship or 50 yards on either side of the slick, Neff said.
The San Francisco public health department issued a statement noting that oil vapors had sickened people onshore, causing headaches and nausea, but said the fumes posed no long-term health effects. Ney said the damage to the bridge could be fixed without too much trouble, but would probably require an emergency contract.
Bay Area News Group reporters Erik N. Nelson and Bill Brand contributed to this report. Contact Paul Rogers at [email protected] or (408) 920-5045.