Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday declared a state of emergency in the San Francisco Bay area, where hundreds of workers have been trying to contain a 58,000-gallon oil spill that has coated beaches and birds for miles along scenic coastline.
The emergency proclamation makes additional state personnel and equipment available to speed up the mess after a container ship hit a column of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Wednesday morning.
"We want to clean this mess up as quickly as possible because there has been tremendous damage to the environment," Schwarzenegger said.
Schwarzenegger also questioned how the ship could have hit the column in the first place, even if it was a foggy morning.
“How does a ship, with that much space available, how does a ship hit the bridge?” Schwarzenegger asked as he was shown a map of the bay and where the vessel struck the column.
“That’s what we’re investigating,” Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco, answered. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
The accident did not damage the span, officials said, but the vessel’s hull was gashed.
Questions also persisted about why the Coast Guard took so long to report the scope of the spill.
Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, didn't explain the delay but said it "is not acceptable." He said the Coast Guard's response to the incident was immediate and aggressive.
Tides have carried a plume of heavy fuel beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. By Thursday afternoon, oil had been sighted about 15 miles north of the city, and at least eight beaches in San Francisco and Marin County were closed.
Beaches searched for birds
The accident is nowhere near the 11 million gallons spilled in the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, but it is believed to be the biggest in the San Francisco Bay since 1988 and it has fouled miles of coastline — sending environmentalists scrambling to save birds, fish, invertebrates and marine mammals.
"The effects of the oil spill could persist for months and possibly years," said Tina Swanson, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute.
Wildlife rescue workers and volunteers combing beaches have found dozens of dead and injured seabirds coated in black oil, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Ten to 15 teams were dispatched Friday to search for more.
More than 70 oiled birds, many of them surf scoters that live on the water's surface, had been found by midday Friday. Most will be taken to a wildlife care center to be cleaned and rehabilitated before being released into the wild.
Hundreds of sickened birds are expected to be recovered over time.
The oil seeps into the birds' skin, leaving them unable to maintain their body temperature, he said. Once covered in oil, the birds are forced to move ashore where they are at risk of starvation.
Wildlife officials are concerned that the region's sea lions and harbor seals could also be affected, though there were no confirmed reports of injured marine mammals.
Concerns about fish
The oil spill is bad news for the region's fish and fishermen.
Herring, the bay's only commercially fished species, spawn at this time of year, and the spill could affect the fishing season that begins in January, said Zeke Grader, who heads the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association.
The spill could threaten steelhead and chinook salmon that travel through the bay to spawning grounds in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers during the fall, Grader said.
Scientists also are worried about the spill's effect on the longfin smelt, whose population has reached record low levels this year. In August, environmental groups petitioned state and federal agencies to list it as an endangered species.
"This is exactly the kind of event that can push a species into extinction," said Swanson, of the Bay Institute.
As wildlife experts worried about the future of the region's animals, authorities questioned the Coast Guard's response in the hours after the spill.
More than 12 hours after the incident, Coast Guard officials were still saying just 140 gallons had leaked, according to Mayor Gavin Newsom, who said the city would consider legal action against anyone found liable.
"We would have responded differently if we had accurate information from the get-go," Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said. City workers, for instance, would have initially laid more boom lines to contain the oil, he said.
Coast Guard criticized
Sen. Barbara Boxer also criticized the Coast Guard's response in a letter sent Thursday to Commandant Adm. Thad Allen, saying she was "very troubled by the Coast Guard's delay in delivering accurate information to the public and the city of San Francisco. Many questions remain as to why it took an entire day to determine the gravity of this spill."
Uberti earlier said Coast Guard personnel knew the full extent of the spill by around 4 p.m. Wednesday. He rejected any suggestion that the crews could have contained the spill more quickly.
"We mobilized as if it was a big spill right away," said Uberti.
Some 9,500 gallons of fuel was recovered, and 18,000 feet of booms were in place by Thursday afternoon, the Coast Guard said.