SAN FRANCISCO — Oil that leaked from a cargo ship after it bumped the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge has closed five beaches and is washing up as far as 40 miles north of San Francisco, the Coast Guard said Thursday.
About 58,000 gallons of oil spilled from the ship when it struck a tower supporting the bridge Wednesday morning. The accident caused no structural damage to the span, officials said, but vessel’s hull suffered a large gash. The ship has since anchored in the bay.
“By our guidelines it is a medium-sized spill. But in the San Francisco Bay Area, that is a big deal,” said Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco and the chief federal officer investigating the accident.
"This is a very environmentally sensitive area, so it's of great concern," said Uberti.
At least eight beaches in San Francisco and Marin County were closed. A hazy film of oil visibly surrounded Alcatraz Island, and the plume extended well north and south of the Golden Gate Bridge. About a half-dozen birds were spotted alive and coated in oil.
'Continues to move around'
"The number one problem is the floating oil that continues to move around the bay at the whim of the current and the winds," said Barry McFarley, the incident commander of the private recovery firm the O'Brien Group, which was heading the response.
Crews in helicopters were surveying the damage, and skimmers were sucking up the oil on the bay and ocean. Teams were also walking the shoreline scooping up the oil, authorities said.
The pilot of the ship was being interviewed by Coast Guard authorities. If he’s to have acted negligently or recklessly, he could lose his state’s pilot license.
Several people who were at the Port of San Francisco reported getting headaches and feeling nauseated from inhaling oil fumes, but the city's public health department said no one was at risk from long-term health effects, NBC affiliate KNTV said.
Officials also posted no fishing signs on Treasure Island in several languages.
While the spill is nowhere as large as the Exxon Valdez 1989 disaster in Alaska, where 11 million gallons spilled, it does pose a threat to wildlife.
'Harder to contain' than other oil
Wil Bruhns, supervising engineer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the oil could threaten wildlife like seals, fish and birds.
"Bunker fuel oil tends to be rather heavy, and it doesn't float as well as other oil. It's harder to contain," Bruhns said.
The Cosco Busan, a China COSCO Holdings Co Ltd vessel, left the Port of Oakland at 6:31 a.m. on Wednesday and about two hours later hit a fender around a support tower on an especially foggy morning.
Transportation officials said part of the fender would need to be replaced, but said the incident did not damage the bridge and traffic continued to flow.
The Bay Bridge is actually two bridges connecting San Francisco to the East Bay. The tower hit Wednesday is part of the western span; the eastern span partially collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.