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Environmentalists call for ban on fuel that spilled in San Francisco Bay

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JULIANA BARBASSA
November 13, 2007
— Sticky, packed with pollutants and slow to break down, the type of oil spilled into the San Francisco Bay by a cargo ship is an ecological nightmare loose on the waves, say environmentalists.

The spill, which has prompted a massive cleanup and federal investigation, inspired the group Friends of the Earth to ask Congress to ban the use of so-called bunker fuel.


"Bunker fuel is the dirtiest fuel on the planet,“ said Teri Shore, campaign director for the marine program at Friends of the Earth, which has started a petition drive seeking a ban.


The problems posed by the fuel stem from its physical properties – it’s gooey and thick, particularly in cold water – and from the toxins it carries, scientists said.


About 58,000 gallons of the fuel poured into the San Francisco Bay on Wednesday, when the Cosco Busan sideswiped a support on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The spreading oil has fouled nearly two dozen beaches and killed dozens of sea birds.


Investigators want to know if the ship’s pilot played down the incident, preventing authorities from relaying accurate information to the public.


"The comments made or the actions taken by individuals are all things that they could be held accountable for,“ Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the top Coast Guard officer in California, said Monday.


Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a Coast Guard spokesman, said "one of the aspects of the investigation is, were the reports made accurate“ after the collision.


The pilot, Capt. John Cota, had radioed authorities to report the vessel had "touched“ the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.


"Traffic, we just touched the delta span,“ Cota said, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal probe. Cota was referring to one of four supports beneath the bridge’s western section.


Cota’s lawyer, John Meadows, said his client did not immediately realize the severity of the crash. "He has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn’t much damage,“ Meadows said.


Federal prosecutors investigating the incident are focusing on problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship’s bridge at the time. Among other things, the ship was under new ownership and management, and the crew’s experience on the vessel appears to have been limited, officials said.


Scott Schools, the acting U.S. attorney for Northern California, confirmed that his office was asked to investigate, but declined to elaborate.


Crew members were questioned on board the vessel. Bone said the owners and operators of the ship would unquestionably face civil penalties.


"I know we have a civil penalty just because we have a spill,“ he said. "There will at least be a civil penalty action, if not a criminal.“


Darrell Wilson, a representative for Hong Kong-based Regal Stone, which owns the Cosco Busan, said the company was eager to hear the results of the investigation.


"From the beginning of the incident, Regal Stone has come forward and been very proactive and engaged with law enforcement officials,“ Wilson said. „We take our job of environmental stewardship very seriously.“


Bunker fuel is a byproduct of oil refining, a process that separates lighter, cleaner, more commercially valuable liquids like gasoline and kerosene.


Its main advantage to the shipping industry is that it’s cheap – a cost-effective option for massive ship engines can burn fuels other engines can’t use.


But if bunker fuel spills, it gums up beaches, marshes and other ecosystems. Animals mistake it for food or ingest it as they try to clean their coats, and the oil breaks through the waterproof fur or feathers that keep them dry, exposing them to hypothermia, said Gary Shigenaka, with the emergency response division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Bunker fuel also creates problems in the air when burned. Tiny particles of pollution and chemicals released through ship exhaust were linked to the premature death of about 60,000 people with heart and lung ailments in 2002, according to an article published this month in Environmental Science & Technology, the journal of the American Chemical Society.


"If the fuel burned by ships were cleaner, we would prevent a significant number of deaths annually,“ said James Winebrake, professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology who co-authored the study.



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