SAN FRANCISCO -- An oil spill fouled miles of fragile coastline Thursday, and environmentalists raced to save tarred marine life as local officials questioned the Coast Guard's response to the ship accident that triggered the spill.
About 58,000 gallons of oil spilled from a South Korea-bound container ship when it struck a tower supporting the Bay Bridge in dense fog Wednesday morning. The accident caused no structural damage to the span, officials said, but the ship's hull suffered a large gash.
Tides carried a plume of heavy fuel beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. By Thursday afternoon, oil had been sighted as far north as Stinson Beach, about 15 miles north of the city, and at least eight beaches in San Francisco and Marin County were closed.
City officials said the Coast Guard initially underreported the size of the spill, believed to be the biggest in the bay since 1988. As late as 9 p.m. Wednesday, Coast Guard officials were saying just 140 gallons had poured into the bay, according to Mayor Gavin Newsom, who said the city would consider legal action against anyone found liable.
"We would have responded differently if we had accurate information from the get-go," said New-som spokesman Nathan Ballard. City workers, for instance, would have laid more boom lines to contain the oil, he said.
A Coast Guard log of Wednesday's events showed the Coast Guard briefed city officials about 1:25 p.m.
However, the log also suggests that the ship's crew and some Coast Guard personnel vastly underestimated the scope of the spill at first.
About two hours after the accident, engineers aboard the cargo ship estimated about 146 gallons of fuel had leaked.
The Coast Guard began receiving reports from its personnel that suggested a much bigger spill, including oil washing up on piers miles away, and "oiled birds and wildlife." Yet at 4:49 p.m., more than eight hours after the accident, a team of Coast Guard, California Department of Fish and Game and San Francisco police officials estimated "400 gallons in the water total," according to the log.
Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco, disputed that. He said Coast Guard personnel knew the full extent of the spill by about 4 p.m. He said the Coast Guard and private response firms responded immediately after the incident, and he rejected any suggestion that the crews could have contained the spill more quickly.
A series of factors appeared to contribute to the slow assessment. The ship's crew could not use its normal means of determining how much fuel had escaped because some of the equipment was damaged in the accident, authorities said.
Other normal means of measuring the spill, such as visual assessments by boat or plane, were hampered by the fog, said Lt. Rob Roberts, an investigator with the California Department of Fish and Game.
Meanwhile, a hazy film of oil surrounded Alcatraz Island, and the plume extended well north and south of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Birds were spotted alive and coated in oil, and state officials estimated the number of injured birds was in the dozens. At least six were found dead, the Department of Fish and Game said.
The petroleum was the bunker fuel that powers ships' engines.
This heavy fuel is the residue from oil refining and contains many contaminants.
"This is a very environment-ally sensitive area, so it's of great concern," said Uberti, who canceled the swim portions of two triathlons scheduled for this weekend.