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San Francisco Bay Oil Spill Investigated


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We are reporting this morning on the high price and the cost of the oil economy. The price remains near a record, more than $93 per barrel, even after dropping this week. The cost is evident in two oil spills half a world apart.

WERTHEIMER: The first was in San Francisco Bay. That's where a cargo ship smashed into a bridge last week. This week people are battling to clean up 58,000 gallons of fuel oil.

NPR's John McChesney reports.

JOHN McCHESNEY: The tight crescent of Rodeo Beach lies just outside into the north of the Golden Gate. The blue surf curls and crashes here as it always does. But when you look a little closer, you see dozens of men in white hazmat suits stuffing soiled material into plastic bags, which are then piled onto all-terrain vehicles and taken off the beach. The ship's owner hired the clean-up crew here, and the crew boss wasn't about to let reporters onto the beach.

Could you just tell me why I can't get in here?

Unidentified Man: No, sir.

McCHESNEY: You can't tell me why I can't get in?

Unidentified Man: It's our work zone.

McCHESNEY: It's a work zone, but it's perfectly wide open.

Unidentified Man: Would you like the phone number too?

McCHESNEY: Well, the phone number from somebody who isn't here can't tell me much - much about what's going on right here, can they?

Unidentified Man: Okay.

McCHESNEY: What do you guys see out there? I mean, do you see a lot of oil, a little bit of oil?

Unidentified Man: Would you like the phone number?

McCHESNEY: We called that phone number and got an answering machine. Hundreds of angry volunteers who showed up to help on area beaches got the same response: go away. But they went out on the sand anyway and began sopping up the oil. The tension evident here is probably the result of the finger pointing about who's responsible for this mess. The Coast Guard is being criticized for waiting hours before telling the public the spill was much worse than originally reported, and the Coast Guard's Rear Admiral Craig Bone says that heavy fog is no excuse for running into the bridge.

Rear Admiral CRAIG BONE (U.S. Coast Guard): There's no reason because you're in fog that this incident should have occurred. The crew was new to that vessel. But that's one of the reasons that we have a state and federally licensed pilot to guide the ship through the port.

McCHESNEY: The ship is equipped with radar and GPS electronics. And the pilot, by law, is put onboard because he has intimate knowledge of local conditions. In this case, the pilot was 25 year veteran Captain John Cota, who quickly radioed authorities that the ship had, quote, "touched the bridge." That touch opened a 90 foot gash in the Cosco Busan, rupturing its fuel tank. Captain Cota's lawyer said Cota felt hardly anything on the ship and assumed there wasn't much damage. Local news reports say Cota was reprimanded last year for running the ship aground.

Congressman George Miller too was mystified as to how this could have happened after all the regulations governing ship traffic in the Bay's obstacle course.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): We have one of the most modern tracking systems in the world in this port because the volume of traffic and the danger to the Bay and to the estuary. But it did not provide the margin of safety that we needed at this moment.

McCHESNEY: Thirty-six hundred commercial ships enter the San Francisco Bay each year, many of them oil tankers from the Alaska. Those tankers are required to have a double hull to prevent leaks after a collision. But freighters with exposed fuel tanks like the Cosco Busan are not similarly regulated. After this incident, environmentalists and local officials say double hulls should become mandatory.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.