Coast Guard attorney Christopher Tribolet told the Associated Press that charges would likely fall under the negligence provisions of the Clean Water Act and the U.S. transportation code.
The crew members of the Hong Kong-based Cosco Busan, which is being detained at the Port of Oakland, were questioned on board the vessel beginning Sunday, Tribolet said.
The container ship did not cause structural damage to the bridge, but the fuel oil has washed ashore along miles of coastline, forced the closure of beaches and piers and killed seabirds.
More than 10,000 gallons of oil had been recovered by Sunday, a Coast Guard spokesperson told the AP, but much of the oil will evaporate or dissipate and be absorbed into the ecosystem. It is the worst oil spill to strike the area in at least two decades.
The Coast Guard has been criticized for its response time to the spill. Several hours passed between when officials learned that the spill was 58,000 gallons — not 140 as initially reported — and when that information was given to local officials and the public.
Commandant Adm. Thad Allen told the AP that it may have taken extra time to learn of the extent of the spill because the equipment used to measure how much fuel is in the oil tank was damaged in the crash. He also said visibility was poor at the time.
“You don’t turn 900-foot vessels on a dime,” Allen told the news agency, “and given the visibility at the time I think it would be difficult to assess whether or not the bridge itself was visible.”
The Coast Guard notified the U.S. attorney’s office on Saturday about problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship’s bridge at the time of the crash.
“It was just the way that everybody interacted,” Capt. William Uberti, U.S. Coast Guard commander for the bay region, told reporters. Uberti declined to elaborate on the findings.
A representative for Regal Stone Ltd., the company that owns the Cosco Busan, declined to comment on the investigation.