SAN FRANCISCO -- Criticism mounted Friday of the U.S. Coast Guard's response after a container ship struck the Bay Bridge, leaking 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay and fouling miles of California coastline.
The attorney for the pilot who was guiding the ship from the Port of Oakland on Wednesday when it hit the bridge said the pilot notified authorities immediately, and soon after alerted them that there was a sheen of oil on the water.
According to the statement from Capt. John Cota's lawyer, it took cleanup crews at least 90 minutes to respond. Coast Guard logs of the day's events show a response team on the scene in about a half hour, but also show it took much longer for oil- skimming vessels to arrive.
"Until the time that Capt. Cota left the ship there had been no response whatsoever to his and the other pilot's reports, which, of course, allowed the spill to spread," said the statement from attorney John F. Meadows.
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The statement bolsters criticism of local officials, who have said the Coast Guard did not tell them until 9 p.m. Wednesday, more than 12 hours after the accident, that 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel had spilled into the bay, not the 140 gallons that was reported previously.
Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California, conceded the agency should have done a better job keeping local authorities informed. "That is not acceptable," Bone said.
But he insisted the Coast Guard's response was immediate and aggressive and that the miscommunication did not impede efforts to corral the oil.
The Coast Guard logs show that the agency received a report of the incident at 8:30 a.m., and a response team in a small boat arrived at the scene at 9:03 a.m.
After assessing the bridge piling for structural damage, authorities reported an oil slick trailing from the ship. At 9:50 a.m., according to the logs, a vessel was on scene "assessing affected areas with skimming equipment."
A spokesman for the ship's owner said the skimmers went to work about 9:55 a.m.
New logs tell a different story
The new logs that surfaced Friday suggested the agency had concluded by 4:49 p.m. that 58,000 gallons had spilled. That contradicted a log obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday, which said that at 4:49 p.m., the Coast Guard believed 400 gallons had escaped.
Sen. Barbara Boxer said she sent a letter to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen, who told her in a meeting Friday that the National Transportation Safety Board would investigate the agency's response.
"I will continue to be in close touch with him on this issue and hold him to his word that those responsible for the severe breakdown in communication will be held accountable," Boxer said.
Aides said she was deciding whether to ask for a hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the Coast Guard.
The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a hearing on the adequacy of the system for reporting spills and the Coast Guard's response, said panel Chairman Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said the city would have responded differently had the full scale of the spill been known, and Bone said Friday "their concerns were warranted."
Tides carried the heavy fuel under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, closing several beaches, canceling weekend events and threatening thousands of birds and other marine life. It is believed to be the biggest spill in the bay since 1988.
Oil skimmers and shoreline cleanup crews continued mopping up the damage, but authorities said most of the oil never will be retrieved and eventually will go into the ecosystem.
As the oil spreads and dissipates, crews will find "diminishing returns" in their skimming efforts, said Barry McFarland. His private recovery firm, the O'Brien Group, was hired by the ship's owner to handle its response to the spill.
On Friday, 17,500 gallons of oily liquid had been sucked up. But Lt. Rob Roberts, a California Department of Fish and Game investigator, said most of the oil in the water will be beyond containment and capture by the weekend. Most of the fuel will dissolve, but some globules could remain and cause months of problems for birds.
Spill is a great danger to birds
"Oil and feathers don't mix," said Yvonne Addassi, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game. "This is not good for the birds."
Fish and Game officials said they have received hundreds of reports of oiled birds found on Bay Area beaches. Ninety-four birds have been recovered and sent to a recovery center in Solano County; 28 were found dead.
Gov. Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency after meeting with state, federal and local officials overseeing the cleanup. The proclamation makes additional state personnel, funding and equipment available.
Investigators continue to puzzle over why the ship, called the Cosco Busan, one of hundreds that pass under the bridge each year, struck the bridge tower as it was going to sea in dense fog.
Cota was one of the most experienced of the seamen who guide massive ships through the bay's treacherous waters.
"How does a ship, with that much space available, how does a ship hit the bridge?" Schwarz-enegger asked Coast Guard officials as he was shown a map of the bay and where the vessel struck the bridge.
"That's what we're investigating," answered Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco. "That shouldn't have happened."
Coast Guard investigators were focusing on possible communication problems among the ship's command, including Cota, a helmsman and a watch officer and the captain.
Investigators will look at the ship's communications with the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service, which is akin to an airport's air traffic control system.
Chief investigator G. Ross Wheatley of the Coast Guard said that while Cota is American, the ship's crew was Chinese. That is a common arrangement, but one that investigators are looking at, he said.
The pilot and the shipping company could face civil penalties as a result of Wheatley's administrative investigation. Cota had answered every question asked of him, Wheatley noted.