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Calif. Oil Spill Cleanup Underway but Long-term Impacts Still Unclear

November 21, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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Cleanup is making headway in the aftermath of an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay but questions remain as to the nature of the ship collision that caused the spill, and the long term environmental impacts. Spencer Michels looks at the causes and effects of the spill.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the cleanup of San Francisco Bay since the big oil spill. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent: On the surface, everything seems back to normal. Most of the oil, not all, is gone; most of the beaches have reopened; many of the 1,500 workers who did the cleanup work have gone away.

The crisis phase of the oil spill that threatened San Francisco Bay is over, but the long-term environmental impacts are still unclear.

That crisis began two weeks ago, when two fuel tanks of a Hong Kong-registered container ship, the Cosco Busan, ruptured after the ship crashed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in a heavy fog. Fifty-eight thousands gallons of thick fuel oil spilled into the bay and then, spread by tides and currents, washed up on beaches and killed over 1,000 birds.

Today, about 800 birds are still being tested, observed, fed, and cleaned at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network run by the University of California at Davis. About 60 percent of the live birds brought here will survive.

What do you see?

CLEANUP VOLUNTEER: This guy looks good.

SPENCER MICHELS: The key to survival is removal of all the oil, which is deadly to the birds, according to Micael Ziccardi, the veterinarian in charge of the center.

DR. MICAEL ZICCARDI, Oiled Wildlife Care Network: Animals, when they go through the process, when we’re washing them, they need to be 100 percent clean before they come out. Even the smallest amount of oil can cause problems on them once they get out of the washings.

SPENCER MICHELS: Already, some of the cleaned birds have been released back into the wilds, but more birds could be harmed by remnants of oil in hard-to-get-to spots, says Warner Chabot of the environmental group Ocean Conservancy.

WARNER CHABOT, Ocean Conservancy: Birds and wildlife lay their eggs, hide and migrate, and hang out in the wetlands. That’s where the oil tends to collect and remain.

SPENCER MICHELS: Scientists don’t know what effect the oil will have on the birds’ reproductive systems or long-term health.

From practically the moment the spill occurred, a laundry list of questions has been raised by the media, by public officials, and by the people who use this bay and the ocean, the fishermen. The point of it all: to prevent another such oil spill or, if there is one, to make sure the response is improved.

Crab fishing hindered

SPENCER MICHELS: Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Association, says his members can't fish because of possible pollution. Immediately on hearing of the spill, the fishermen offered to help the Coast Guard clean up since they had been trained for such a task, but were turned down.

LARRY COLLINS, S.F. Crab Boat Owners Association: They said they were looking for people to scrub oiled birds at that point.

SPENCER MICHELS: And you said?

LARRY COLLINS: I said, "Well, we'd been waiting for the call. We want to help clean up."

SPENCER MICHELS: And they said?

LARRY COLLINS: That was all they said.

SPENCER MICHELS: Rear Admiral Craig Bone, the Coast Guard commander in charge of the whole operation, said the fishermen needed more training.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG BONE, U.S. Coast Guard: In this case, that training had lapsed. Also, if you're handling hazardous material like oil, you have to have some training, as well, so that you don't expose yourself. I think it would have been a mistake to say, "Go at it, guys," when they haven't had the training.

SPENCER MICHELS: Eventually, after more training, the crab fishermen did join in the cleanup, with contractors supervising them. They expect to start fishing after tests confirm the crab are not affected.

A class-action lawsuit has been filed against the ship, claiming the fishermen have lost income. Meanwhile on Fishermen's Wharf, the crab for sale is coming mostly from Washington state.

The economic impact probably will be short-lived. But more immediately officials are trying to figure how the collision happened.

Looking for explanations

SPENCER MICHELS: It was 8:30 a.m., and a San Francisco-based pilot was guiding the ship between two towers of the bridge. Most of the ship's crew spoke only Chinese. Fog is common on the bay. The pilot claimed the ship's radar "conked out," an allegation investigators have been unable to confirm. He said he had to rely on unfamiliar electronic maps.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG BONE: We don't believe that it's mechanical. We believe that something took place on this ship where something went tragically wrong.

SPENCER MICHELS: You mean something human?


SPENCER MICHELS: Maybe communication? Maybe what?

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG BONE: It could be a whole host of factors. When you have a casualty like this, it's usually a chain of events, a group of things that go wrong.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the California Maritime Academy on the shores of San Francisco Bay, students are trained to operate big merchant ships. Using computer simulation, students can steer through a storm and rough seas.

I'm actually getting a little bit woozy.

Or through a foggy passage under the Bay Bridge, just like the Cosco Busan made November 7th. In fact, everyone here is talking about the accident.

CAPTAIN SAM PECOTA, California Maritime Academy: This vessel is at slow ahead. We could go to dead slow, but then...

SPENCER MICHELS: Professor Sam Pecota spent 20 years at sea, 11 of them as a ship captain. He says running a big ship in the fog makes pilots and captains worry.

CAPTAIN SAM PECOTA: The ship, obviously, does not respond like a sports car. I compare a pilot to a grand master in a chess tournament, thinking 10 moves ahead. It's a very scary thing. And I have to confess, it has happened to me, and it's a very, very bad feeling.

SPENCER MICHELS: Captain Pecota showed us several computer-based electronic map systems of San Francisco Bay that could be used instead of radar. But if the pilot wasn't used to them, he may have had difficulty.

CAPTAIN SAM PECOTA: ... which looks quite a bit different. He might not be able to see exactly what he's looking for in the critical amount of time that he needs to figure out what he's looking at.

Coast Guard response questioned

SPENCER MICHELS: Whatever happened, the Coast Guard's response to it drew heavy criticism. Originally, they said the spill was 140 gallons; a full eight hours later, they upgraded it to 58,000 gallons. That, critics like Warner Chabot charge, delayed efforts to contain the spill.

WARNER CHABOT: If there's one lesson learned, it's what you do in the first two hours is more important that what you do in the next two weeks. We don't send out a large response in a quick timeframe to stop the spill, so we end up, instead of something that might cost $250,000 to stop the spill, we have a $100 million effort to clean it up off 100 miles of shoreline.

SPENCER MICHELS: Crab fisherman Larry Collins makes it even more explicit.

LARRY COLLINS: San Francisco Bay is 400 square miles, and it empties in and out, up and down, six feet every day. The volume of water moving underneath the Golden Gate is more than the Amazon River. And if you move quick and get the booms around it and contain it, then you don't have long- term effects of cleanup for weeks.

SPENCER MICHELS: While acknowledging it delayed in notifying local officials of the size of the spill, the Coast Guard defended its response.

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG BONE: I think, in the communication piece up front, we failed. We didn't provide efficient communications to the city. But with regard to the response itself to this, I think it was textbook or better, and we had outstanding results from that.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was fast enough and massive enough?

REAR ADMIRAL CRAIG BONE: It was larger than the response for a major oil tanker spill. The equipment was tenfold what's required for a vessel of this type that comes into port.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Coast Guard rejects allegations that since 9/11 it has been preoccupied with security issues and has neglected policing commercial shipping. That issue and others will be heavily debated, as numerous investigations begin into the causes and the effects of the San Francisco Bay oil spill.