2-mile-long oil slick fouls San Francisco Bay

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WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (MCT) — A mechanical failure during the fueling of a tanker caused an oil spill Friday morning, leaving a two-mile slick south of the Bay Bridge and evoking memories of a much larger spill two years ago.

The spill was reported to the Coast Guard at 6:48 a.m. in an area about 2.5 miles south of the bridge. Crews responded immediately, but it took more than three hours before booms were deployed to contain the spill.

The Panama-flagged Dubai Star, an approximately 600-foot tanker carrying jet fuel, was taking bunker fuel from a barge when an “unknown amount” of fuel spilled onto the deck and then the water. The vessel’s crew shut down the fuel pump to prevent additional leakage, but not before it created a slick that got as long as two miles and as wide as about 200 yards.

“There were safeguards in place,” said Capt. Paul Gugg, commanding officer of the Coast Guard Sector San Francisco. “There were people on both ends of the transfer, and equipment to address spills. Those were inadequate.”

The Coast Guard, which is being assisted by the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, had not received any reports of oil reaching the shoreline or any negative impacts on wildlife. Initial reports indicated the spill might be less than 100 gallons, but officials were hesitant to specify a figure because early reports of the 2007 Cosco Busan spill were grossly underestimated.

Oil trajectory models predicted that the spill could potentially impact shorelines at North Alameda Island, Bay Farm Island, Yerba Buena Island and Treasure Island by late Friday.

A 100-yard security zone was established around the Dubai Star and spill site. Contractors called to assist with cleanup and removal of the fuel arrived at the site about 10:30 a.m., using floating booms to absorb and contain the fuel. Two oil skimmers from National Response Corporation and five booming vessels deployed 1,100 feet of boom and contained the spill, the Coast Guard said.

The majority of the spill consisted of sheen expected to evaporate; heavy oil in the water was being collected by the skimmers.

The ship, built in 2007, is owned by South Harmony Shipping Inc. and was en route from Mexico to Richmond.

Authorities said they were generally satisfied with the spill response. In response to questions about the swiftness of the cleanup, Gugg said while booms did not appear for hours, vessels and manpower were being dispatched soon after the initial reports.

“It took four hours to get that boom. But we mobilized shortly after notification,” Gugg said.

The time between when the spill was reported and when cleanup began renewed calls by environmental group Friends of the Earth to ban the use of bunker fuel and increase protective measures for fuel transfers.

In November 2007, the Cosco Busan container ship ran into part of the Bay Bridge in heavy fog, rupturing a tank and spilling about 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay. The fuel spread quickly and eventually killed more than 2,400 birds and closed more than 50 beaches. It eventually affected California shorelines as far apart as Richmond, Pacifica and Marin County, and resulted in the jailing of the ship’s captain and operator and the removal of the Coast Guard officer in charge of monitoring the ship’s movements.

Bunker fuel is cheap but sticky and difficult to remove from rocks and wildlife. It also produces a lot of pollution. Since July 1, its use has been banned within 24 miles of California’s coast because of new rules from state air quality regulators.

Ships can hold the fuel in their tanks and refuel, “they just can’t burn it within 24 nautical miles,” said state Air Resources Board spokesman Dimitri Stanich.

Acknowledging that Friday’s spill evoked memories of the Cosco Busan incident, the Coast Guard said the only similarity between the spills was the type of fuel that got into the water. The agency cited that it was a mild weather day, ensuring that the spilled fuel would not travel far.

Friends of the Earth is pushing for the deployment of protective booms for all fuel transfers so that spills are contained quickly.

“Deploying booms nearly four hours after a spill occurs, which reports indicate occurred today, is completely unacceptable,” said Marcie Keever, director of Friends of the Earth’s Clean Vessels program.

Another environmentalist was less critical.

“The fact that that little volume became a three- or four-mile sheen says to me it wasn’t contained soon enough, but that might not have been possible,” said Deb Self, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper.

Last year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have cut the response time to an oil spill to two hours, saying the requirement could jeopardize the safety of first-responders. State law requires a response within six hours.

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