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San Jose Mercury News: Pelosi Demands Answers in Bay Oil Spill

By Paul Rogers

Vowing to make public all the facts behind a Nov. 7 oil spill in San Francisco Bay - and the questionable Coast Guard response - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Monday she will request a new investigation by the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

 

'One way or another sooner or later, we will get to the bottom of this,' she said.

 

Pelosi spoke at a public hearing on the spill held in the Golden Gate Club at the Presidio. Ten members of Congress, including many of the Bay Area delegation, attended the hearing, sponsored by the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation.

 

Debbie Hersman, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board, told the hearing that the agency's investigation will take a year to complete.

 

For Pelosi, who several days ago said she asked the top Coast Guard commander in Washington, D.C., to shift the investigation to another agency, so it wouldn't be investigating itself, the NTSB explanation was hardly satisfying.

 

'What I'm discouraged about is that it will take a year. That's just too long,' Pelosi said.

 

The board, Hersman said, still must interview many of the crew members and others involved with the collision of the 902-foot Cosco Busan with the BayBridge. The collision, which ripped a tear more than 100-feet long in the Chinese cargo ship and two of its fuel tanks, dumped 58,000 gallons of bunker oil into the bay, fouling more than 40 miles of shoreline and killing at least 1,000 birds.

 

Hersman said the board has not done an investigation similar to this one since 1990. It was only Friday that the agency's nine-person team investigating the spill obtained the software to properly read ship instruments and computers to confirm key details like the vessel's speed and rudder position. She also said that conversations on the ship's voice recorder are in Chinese and require an interpreter to sort out.

 

For much of the three-hour hearing, Bay Area members of congress blasted the Coast Guard for waiting more than four hours before notifying the public and San Francisco officials of the scope and size of the spill, along with refusing help from San Francisco fire crews, fishermen volunteering boats, and more than 1,000 members of the public who offered to help clean beaches but were initially turned away.

 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose, said it did not augur well for larger disasters in an age of terrorism.

 

'What if this had been some other type of event - bad as an oil spill is - like a homeland security event?'

 

Similarly, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-San Mateo, said the accident featured nothing out of the ordinary, just 'a ship, fog and a bridge' and was entirely preventable.

 

'Politically some heads will have to roll,' he added later.

 

Few new details of the accident surfaced Monday.

 

Coast Guard Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the senior Coast Guard officer in California, conceded that his agency should not have waited until 9 p.m. to notify the public and San Francisco leaders that the spill was 58,000 gallons, rather than 140 gallons as the Coast Guard had been reporting.

 

'I'm not going to make an excuse for not telling the mayor or the citizens,' he said.

Bone relieved the top local official, Coast Guard Commander of the Port William Uberti, last week of his duties on the spill.

 

While communications were bad, the response to the spill was 'fabulous,' Bone said. He noted that the Coast Guard had a boat on the scene within about 45 minutes, then had its investigators board the ship. Within two hours, he said, four skimmer boats arrived from the shipping company's cleanup firm, Marine Spill Response Corp.

 

But the mess spread quickly. 'Two hours into the spill the oil was already covering about four square miles of the bay,' said Dr. William Conner, chief of the hazardous materials emergency response division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

 

Rep. George Miller, D-Walnut Creek, noted that on nearly all oil spills, only about 5 percent to 20 percent of the oil is recovered.

 

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the chairman of the subcommittee, promised to stay closely involved as the investigation unfolds, and to write new laws to improve shipping safety.

 

'We can do better,' he said. 'This is not just about San Francisco. This kind of thing can happen in Chesapeake Bay where I live. It can happen all over the country.'