Tanker Spills Heavy Black Oil into San Francisco Bay

ALAMEDA, California, October 31, 2009 (ENS) – Cleanup operations continue today in response to an oil spill from a tanker into San Francisco Bay Friday morning.

Bunker fuel was being pumped into the Panamanian-flagged oil tanker Dubai Star when the spill occurred at 6:48 am about 2.5 miles south of the Bay Bridge at Anchorage 9 near the Oakland Airport.

The Dubai Star was fueling from a lightering barge when it suffered a leak in one of its fuel lines, according to the U.S. Coast Guard. The ship’s crew secured the source of the spill and no more fuel is leaking into the bay. The 600 foot long tanker was carrying a cargo of light jet fuel, which did not spill.

The cause of the spill is under investigation, but the initial assessment is that a mechanical failure occurred, the Coast Guard said in a statement Friday afternoon. Both the barge providing fuel to the vessel and the tugboat have been released from the scene.

The Coast Guard estimates the size of the spill at between 400 and 800 gallons, but San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and other officials guessed that a few thousand gallons may have been spilled.

The oil slick was at least three miles long by Friday night, and the Coast Guard warns that the heavy black oil could start hitting shores along north Alameda Island, Bay Farm Island in Alameda, Yerba Buena Island and Treasure Island today.

The U.S. Coast Guard immediately responded to the spill with an Incident Management Team. Two oil skimmers from National Response Corporation, a company the Coast Guard contracted to clean up the spill, attended the scene along with five booming vessels that deployed 1,100 feet of boom to contain the oil.

San Francisco Bay spanned by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge (Photo by Chris Guillebeau)

Coast Guard MH-65 helicopter and two Coast Guard patrol boats arrived along with port, state and investigative officers.

The Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response and the vessel owner, South Harmony Shipping of Panama, have established a unified command and are jointly managing cleanup operations. Local government agencies also are engaged in the operations.

Coast Guard Capt. Paul Gugg told reporters that the Dubai Star’s crew rapidly notified authorities, but that it took four hours to circle the ship with booms and contain the immediate spill area.

Some conservationists say it took too long for booms to be deployed and meanwhile the oil was spreading across the bay.

“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.

Today, skimming and booming operations are underway and shoreline monitors are conducting reconnaissance operations on water and on area beaches. Ongoing aerial assessments are determining the extent and location of any remaining oil.

The California Department of Fish and Game, upon recommendation of the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, has suspended fishing and shellfish harvesting in the areas affected by the oil. The suspension will remain in effect at least until state health officials have determined that fishing can be reopened.

Clean up crews rake up oil in systematic pattern on Crown Memorial Beach in Alameda. October 31, 2009. (Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class David Schuhlein courtesy U.S. Coast Guard)

Closure areas include the Alameda County shoreline between the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the San Mateo Bridge. In addition, OEHHA is advising that people avoid fishing in areas where there is a visible oil sheen on the water.

OEHHA is the science arm of the California Environmental Protection Agency and is working with the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Public Health and other agencies to conduct the fish safety evaluation.

“Protecting the public’s health is our top priority,” said OEHHA Director Joan Denton. “It’s a good idea to avoid any fish from the spill area until further notice.”

No oiled wildlife have been observed at this time. The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is continuing search and reconnaissance operations today.

University of California-Davis veterinarian Michael Ziccardi, an international authority on the rescue and treatment of oiled wildlife, said staffers from the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and its partner organizations are in boats at the Dubai Star oil spill to assess the situation and collect any oiled birds they find.

The public is asked not to attempt to rescue oiled wildlife, but instead to report any sighting to the OWCN at 1-877-823-6926.

In response to the spill, Friends of the Earth has renewed its call for a ban on the use of bunker fuel, a waste product of refining oil more than 1,000 times dirtier than the diesel used in trucks and buses.

“As Bay Area residents learned in the aftermath of the Cosco Busan spill in 2007, bunker fuel is a filthy sludge that literally comes from the bottom of the barrel when oil is refined,” said Keever. “We should have learned our lesson in 2007 and moved away from bunker fuel to cleaner fuel. Any further delay is unconscionable.”

Friends of the Earth also called for the enactment of protective measures for San Francisco Bay similar to those in Washington state’s Puget Sound after numerous bunker fuel spills into those waters.

“Vessels should be required to set out protective booms prior to the transfer of fuel while anchored in order to minimize the spread of spills if they happen and to provide advance notice of this type of fueling in order to allow for a more rapid response in case of a spill,” Keever said.

The Captain of the Port ordered that all vessels must gain clearance from Vessel Traffic Service to transit the spill area. Mariners should contact VTS on marine channel 14 to request clearance. Vessel traffic through the Oakland Estuary and Oakland Bar Channel is being allowed on a case-by-case basis, upon approval from VTS.

All ferry service transiting San Francisco Bay is operational, but ferries are being routed north around the spill area.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.

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