Monday, November 02, 2009

Oil spill fouls East Bay beaches, kills birds

San Francisco Chronicle
Staff Writers-Kelly Zito, Peter Fimrite

Some of the hundreds of gallons of bunker fuel oil spilled Friday in San Francisco Bay have started washing onto shore, polluting area beaches and killing dozens of birds.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard authorities said they would investigate whether any mistakes were made in the initial response to the spill. Some environmental groups questioned why it took several hours to position containment booms around the leak and beaches in the spill zone.

"That's what the Coast Guard and Fish and Game are looking at right now ... the timeliness," said Lt. Rob Roberts of the California Department of Fish and Game.

At 6:48 a.m. Friday, the Panamanian tanker Dubai Star spilled bunker oil into the bay as the ship was being refueled about 2 1/2 miles south of the Bay Bridge.

The oil sheen quickly covered a miles-long swath of water; however, aerial assessments and measurements of the tanker's fuel capacity showed "only" (?-KNN's emphasis) 400 to 800 gallons of bunker fuel had been spilled, officials said Saturday.

The cause of the spill is still under investigation, but early evidence pointed to mechanical failure.

For watchdogs of the bay's ecosystem and wildlife, the incident brought back memories of the disastrous 2007 Cosco Busan incident, which dumped nearly 60,000 gallons of bunker fuel, killing thousands of birds and fouling sensitive shorelines. The Coast Guard and other agencies came under attack for the poor communication and sluggish response to that spill, which occurred two years ago this month.

Response time
It took several hours Friday to deploy booms around the tanker. And at least one environmental group wondered why responders didn't immediately place a protective boom along Crown Memorial State Beach in Alameda - the spot hardest hit by the spill.

By Saturday, tar balls - some the size of silver dollars and a few as big as seat cushions - had washed up along shore every 5 to 10 yards.

About 60 oiled birds, about half that had died, were found at that site, according to the East Bay Regional Park District. The Coast Guard would confirm only the collection of 12 oiled-but-surviving birds.

"We have the beaches closed to provide an onshore refuge for the birds," Escobar said. "Oiled birds need to get onshore because they lose their insulation."

Herring habitat
Self worried about the oil's impact on eelgrass beds around Alameda, which provide important spawning habitat for herring. The herring season - the bay's last commercial fishery - was canceled in September because of concerns about the health of the fish population. Self and others believe the Cosco Busan spill may have played a large role in killing off herring eggs.

For its part, the Coast Guard and coordinating agencies said they responded with "surgical" precision, limiting the oil impact to about 6 miles of shoreline.

By Saturday afternoon, the Coast Guard had deployed 22 vessels, one helicopter and teams of wildlife crews to assess damage along San Francisco and Alameda shorelines. All told, 53,000 feet of containment booms had been set out around the ship itself as well as important beaches.

In addition to tar balls along Crown Memorial Beach, oil was washing up in the Ballena Isle Marina in Alameda, Coast Guard officials said.

Closed areas include the Alameda County shoreline between the Bay Bridge and the San Mateo Bridge. Fishing should be avoided anywhere there is a visible sheen.

Beach closures
San Francisco officials asked people to refrain from swimming in the bay and stay away from local beaches. But those warnings didn't keep everyone away. Shoshanna Tenn, 36, of Oakland, went to Crown Memorial Beach and offered to help, but she was turned away.

"The bay is huge and we all use it, so it is important to keep it clean," Tenn said as she stared out at the booms laid out in the water protecting the bird sanctuary. "Our kids come to this beach. It's our home."

Report oiled birds
The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is not asking for volunteer help at this point, but anyone who sees oiled wildlife should call (877) 823-6926.

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