Efforts to combat the San Francisco Bay Area's worst oil spill in two decades escalated yesterday as the Coast Guard doubled its cleanup fleet of bay skimmers, and crews with hundreds of trained workers mounted a shoreline assault to clear sludge and rescue oiled birds.
Oil covered bird - Will he survive?
An oil slick swirled across the bay, poured out the Golden Gate, headed west to the Farallones and north to Tomales Bay, as tides churned waves of oil along the coast.
Authorities expected winds to shift, pushing a finger of the toxic slick south to Half Moon Bay.
Two dozen beach and shoreline park areas across the bay and along the coast were closed, including Marin's Angel Island, as well as Stinson Beach, Muir Beach, Fort Point, Baker Beach, Fort Baker, Kirby Cove, Rodeo Beach, Tennessee Valley Beach, Steep Ravine Beach and Red Rock Beach.
Officials were flooded with calls from citizens wanting to help with the cleanup.
'We discouraged them from just showing up at a beach and offering their services,' said Marin sheriff's Lt. Doug Pittman, noting training sessions held Saturday were aimed at developing a skilled volunteer corps. Training is especially important for those rescuing birds.
Scores of birds have died since 58,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel spewed into the bay Wednesday after a cargo ship hit a tower of the Bay Bridge.
A preliminary Coast Guard investigation has found that 'human error' caused the crash.
'There were skilled enough individuals on board this ship. They didn't carry out their missions correctly,' said Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California.
Investigators were focusing on issues surrounding the ship's official protocol for safely navigating out of the bay, including possible communication problems between the ship's crew, the pilot guiding the vessel and the Vessel Traffic Service, the Coast Guard station that monitors the bay's shipping traffic.
Questions abounded about the response procedures of the Coast Guard and spill agencies, including failure to promptly contain the mushrooming oil plume or tell local authorities about the extent of the catastrophe.
U.S. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer joined a growing chorus of angry critics, with Feinstein saying the spill response was 'bobbled' and Boxer calling it 'unacceptable.' Investigations by state and federal agencies were under way, and legislative hearings appeared sure to follow.
The Coast Guard deployed 20 oil skimmers Saturday, nine more than Friday, said Petty Officer Sherri Eng. The flotilla included 40 support vessels carrying cleanup gear such as absorbent material and containment booms..
By late Saturday, crews had deployed 38,000 feet of floating oil-absorbing booms, with another 7,000 more to go, said state Fish and Game spokeswoman Bernadette Fees.
Nearly 21,000 gallons of a heavy oil and water mixture had been sucked up by Saturday morning, but authorities said most of the rest will never be captured. It eventually will dissipate but globs could remain for months and cause toxic problems for years.
About 500 workers staffed shoreline cleanup crews Saturday.
Wildlife officials received hundreds of reports of oiled birds found on beaches and at least 200 birds were sent to a rehabilitation center. Most were surf scoters, birds that dive for fish.
'Oil and feathers don't mix,' said Yvonne Addassi, a wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game. 'We're in a time crunch. The birds can only stay oiled for so long before they can no longer be rehabilitated.'
Fish and Game officials said the spill could affect bay herring that spawn at this time of year. The pollution also could affect other bay fisheries, including striped bass, halibut, and baby Dungeness crab, for which the bay is a nursery.
Commercial crab fishermen on Saturday postponed next Thursday's opening of the commercial crab fishing season 'indefinitely,' fearing crabs pulled through the froth and then kept alive in tanks with circulating ocean water would be contaminated with oil.
In Sausalito, boats returning from fishing trips were plastered with oily goo.
'When you went though it, it splattered everywhere,' said Tom Mathis, trying to wash oil off his boat at Clipper Yacht Harbor. 'If you touch it, it gets worse.'
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday, making additional state funding and resources available. Marin County officials also declared an emergency, and offered to assist state Fish and Game investigators probing the debacle.
Criticism mounted about the Coast Guard's response after an attorney for the bar pilot who was guiding the ship Cosco Busan when it hit the bridge said the pilot notified authorities immediately - and soon after told them there was a sheen of oil on the water.
Capt. John Cota's lawyer said it took cleanup crews at least 90 minutes to respond. Coast Guard logs indicate a response team was on the scene in about a half hour, but also indicate it took much longer for oil-skimming vessels to arrive.
The lawyer said the Coast Guard had warned Cota about his route shortly before the crash, but Cota radioed back that his navigation instruments indicated he was on course and headed 'directly for the center of the span.'
Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California, conceded the agency should have promptly informed local authorities of the size of the spill, but said the Coast Guard's response was immediate.
The Coast Guard waited for four hours before announcing that 58,000 gallons of fuel, and not just 140 gallons as it first reported, had spilled. 'That is unacceptable,' Bone said.
Contra Costa Times reporter Janice De Jesus and the Associated Press contributed to this report