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Oil spill response "Woefully inadequate"

Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) called the response to last week's oil spill "woefully inadequate" at a special oversight hearing in Emeryville yesterday.
Photos by John Han

By Caitlin McAdoo

November 15, 2007

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, called the response to the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill that spewed 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into San Francisco Bay "woefully inadequate" at an emergency oversight hearing in Emeryville Thursday.

Greg Hurner, deputy director of California Department of Fish and Game's Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), told the panel, which included Hancock, Assemblymember Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Assemblymember Sandre Swanson, D-Oakland, that OSPR had approved the ship's contingency plans and that the shipping company had responded to the spill in accordance with those plans.

Panelists included Assemblymember Loni Hancock (D- Berkeley),
Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco),
and Assemblymember Sandre Swanson (D- Oakland)

"So what went wrong?" Hancock asked.

"I'm not saying it went wrong," Hurner said.

Greg Hurner

The ship struck the base of the Delta Tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge at 8:27 a.m. on Nov. 7. The U.S. Coast Guard notified OSPR officials at 8:30 a.m. and they had teams out on the water assessing the extent of the spill within the hour, Hurner said.

The leak was stopped within half an hour, Hurner said.

The ship's captain originally told OSPR that 420 gallons of oil had escaped from the 100 foot long, 12 foot wide and three foot deep gash in the vessel's hull. Officials didn't determine the actual quantity of oil released until 5 p.m., more than eight hours after the incident.

Hurner emphasized that California had the most stringent regulations for oil-carrying vessels in the nation and that the response to the incident had gone according to the state approved contingency plan.

Hancock asked Hurner if OSPR officials believed that the response was the best it could have been.

"They responded appropriately to the incident," Hurner said. He added that OSPR would be evaluating the response to see where it could be improved for future disasters.

"I suggest that we need to do that," said Hancock. "That nothing went wrong, that it was the best we could do, I think that's not an acceptable answer."

Although the ship was 900 feet long, it was only required to be able to deploy 600 feet of boom within the first hour of an incident, according to Hurner.

Booms were never placed around the ship because, according to Hurner, by the time they could have been deployed, the oil had already spread through the water.

Leno asked why booms weren't placed across the Bay Bridge to keep the oil from spreading.

Hurner said they would have been ineffective. Emergency responders instead focused their attention on determining where the oil was going, he said.

Although Hurner said there was sufficient personnel to respond to the spill, Craig Merrilees, communications director for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, argued that more trained people ready to respond to the incident could have resulted in better containment.

"You might want to ask yourself why the company redeployed 3 times the number of folks they had on the sight from all over the United States to be here."

Merrilees alleged the company Marine Spill Response Corporation had only around 20 dedicated responders prior to the incident, and that the number of responders actually needed to operate the necessary equipment was around an excess of 60.

Craig Merrilees

He said theMSRC short staffing was, "neither an accident or an oversight," but part of an official policy that, "deliberately under-staffs the areas until a disaster strikes

The shipping company flew emergency responders in from the east coast and the gulf coast to help with the cleanup efforts.

"By the time most MSRC personnel arrived to work on the Bay Area spill, it was nearly 24 hours and 4 tide cycles too late," said Merrilees.

Chris Boyer, emergency services manager for Contra Costa County office of Emergency Services, said his agency had not been able to immediately respond to the spill because it wasn't given the authority to do so.

"Every disaster is a locally managed disaster - except oil spills," Boyer said.

Chris Boyer

Hancock said before the hearing she would be working to draft legislation to give local agencies the training and equipment necessary to respond to oil spills. She said she would also be looking at possibly requiring ships to be double-hulled and requiring them to have more tugboat escorts when navigating the Bay.

John Han contributed to this report.


Copyright © 2007 by Bay City News, Inc. -- Republication, Rebroadcast or any other Reuse without the express written consent of Bay City News, Inc. is prohibited.




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