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Sticky issues for Coast Guard

Times Staff Writers

The oil spill plaguing San Francisco Bay has raised fresh questions about the changing mission of the U.S. Coast Guard, with critics Monday saying the agency’s new homeland security duties have eroded its ability to tackle such environmental disasters.

In recent years, Coast Guard staff and institutional emphasis have been shifted more toward port and coastal protection duties than marine safety and environmental response. Meanwhile, important equipment used in spill response has aged, insiders say, and training drills -- routine in the years after the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska -- are fewer and farther between.

Last March, the Coast Guard disbanded its department that helped set up those oil-spill response exercises and reassigned more than a dozen people to homeland security duties.

Coast Guard officials have defended their efforts over the last week, saying they launched a quick and decisive spill response after the cargo vessel Cosco Busan sideswiped the San Francisco-Bay Bridge on Wednesday and began leaking 58,000 gallons of sticky, heavy bunker fuel.

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But they also have acknowledged that they failed to quickly grasp the magnitude of the spill -- originally thought to be only 140 gallons -- or to make a timely report to local officials and the public, who remained largely in the dark for a dozen hours after the accident.

If errors were made, “we’ll be held accountable,” said Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard’s top officer in California. “We’re responsible. And we’ll make the changes that need to be made.”

Over the weekend, the National Transportation Safety Board took over the accident investigation from the Coast Guard and promised to review the initial response. The U.S. attorney in San Francisco has also stepped in to see if civil or criminal charges are warranted against the ship’s crew or owners.

The investigation has so far focused on human error, but NTSB officials said Monday the board was also looking at a possible equipment malfunction and a language gap between the Chinese crew and the English-speaking pilot. An attorney for Capt. John Cota, the local mariner assigned to pilot the ship out of the bay, said Monday that the radar was broken. In addition, the attorney said, the ship’s captain -- who ceded control of the vessel to Cota in the bay -- provided incorrect information from the navigation system.

“He was left hanging out there in the fog,” said the attorney, John Meadows of San Francisco.

The Coast Guard, meanwhile, remains under fire from politicians and the media in the San Francisco region, where the Sierra Club has its headquarters -- as well as 55,000 card-carrying members -- and where the namesake bay represents a glistening embodiment of the environmental ethos.

While insisting the spill response could not have been more aggressive, Coast Guard officials admit to a bit of institutional soul-searching.

“After Sept. 11, 2001, we were all about security. Everyone was,” said Dan Dewel, a Coast Guard spokesman at the regional headquarters in Alameda.

Now the Coast Guard is looking at tactics and strategies, “trying to find the right mix, balance and structure,” Dewel said. “The Coast Guard has to rewire its connections among its different parts so that we can be as flexible and responsive as possible.”

If there’s been a reduction in operations, he said, “we’ll find a way to fix that.”

In reshaping its focus after 9/11, critics say, the Coast Guard has let its relationships with port users, shippers and fishermen deteriorate. That is because marine safety and environmental response strategies require close cooperation. Anti-terrorism tactics, however, tend to be secretive and rigid.

“It’s changed big-time, in the sense everything now is focused on the war on terror,” said Zeke Grader, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Assns. A decade ago, Bay Area fishermen were counted on by the Coast Guard to help mop up oil spills. Dozens of fishing boats and anglers were certified to deal with spills, Grader said. “It was like a volunteer fire department kind of thing.”

But officials let the program lapse, he said. And when the fishermen approached the Coast Guard to help, they were told not to bother, said Larry Collins, president of the San Francisco Crab Boat Owners Assn.

They hit the water anyway over the weekend after the Port of San Francisco stepped up to get Coast Guard permission. In all, 22 boats have participated since Sunday, dragging big, absorbent pompoms to collect the fuel, Collins said, adding: “We’re getting a lot of oil.”

Politicians have been touring the spill site in recent days, critiquing the response.

The latest broadside came Monday morning, as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and a group of local Democratic lawmakers held a shoreline news conference to announce congressional hearings into the spill and its aftermath.

Though the stated focus was how to prevent such spills in the future, the role of the Coast Guard undoubtedly will be addressed.

“This is an environmental disaster,” declared Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma). In the wake of the accident and the Coast Guard response, Woolsey said, the general public isn’t “sure we’re as competent as we need to be.”

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, announced he would hold a hearing to address oil-spill procedures.

Cummings said he was “very concerned” about the Coast Guard’s performance, and said that it was “not adequately prepared to handle a spill of this magnitude.”

Although a lead federal responder for oil spills, the Coast Guard is just one of several government entities that step up during such disasters. Others include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the California Fish and Game’s Department of Spill Prevention and Response, the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Boat operators in Southern California also have complained about a change in the Coast Guard’s approach.

With the massive ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to be protected, the Coast Guard seems to be struggling these days, said Long Beach tour boat Capt. Dan Salas.

“It used to be that the only things the Coast Guard had to do was search and rescue,” Salas said. “Now they’re spread thin.”

But, he added, “there are only so many Coast Guard personnel, and if they are looking for terrorists and keeping us safe, it’s hard to place blame on them.”

Lt. Andy Munoz, spokesman for the Coast Guard’s Los Angeles sector, acknowledged there was a sea change after 9/11.

“The Coast Guard’s security mission used to be under the radar,” he said. “Now, we want the public to see us out there as a deterrent.”

But he said his sector still handles two or three small spills a week from pleasure boats sinking at piers. For bigger problems, such as the container vessel that lost 200 gallons of fuel in the Port of Los Angeles a few months ago, it keeps oil-spill response equipment such as booms and skimmers on hand, much of it near sensitive habitat such as the Bolsa Chica wetlands and least tern breeding areas at the port.

Ron Bare, president of Ocean Blue Environmental Services, one of the Port of Los Angeles’ largest environmental-response contractors, said spills are more easily contained in the twin harbors’ tighter channels than wide-open San Francisco Bay -- and insisted the Coast Guard still could be counted on.

“It’s true, they have shifted toward security because it is where the dollars were spent after 9/11,” he said. “But they are still capable.”

Grader, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Assns., does not agree. He said reports from his fleet indicate that the Coast Guard and the shipping company failed to act swiftly enough to stem the troubles after the massive container ship nudged a tower of the Bay Bridge, ripping a lengthy gash on its port side.

Compared with the 11 million gallons that spilled from the Exxon Valdez, “this one in the scheme of things was fairly minor,” Grader said. “But it was made major because they didn’t get the containment out there in a timely manner.”

By Monday, the spill had tainted beaches nearly all around the bay, and escaped through the Golden Gate to blacken shorelines as far north as Point Reyes National Seashore, far up the Marin County coast. So far, more than 900 birds been found blackened by oil, though 545 have survived with the help of wildlife rescue crews.

Some with inside knowledge of the Coast Guard say it has lost the institutional knowledge to quickly assess spills and react swiftly.

Equipment also is aging. In some regions, the rubber bladders used to store recovered oil are at the end of their service life. Crews are hesitant to use them for fear they’ll burst.

Meanwhile, despite federal rules established after the Exxon Valdez disaster that called for oil-spill drills six times annually, the exercises occur rarely. The Coast Guard isn’t alone as a target for criticism.

State Senate Leader Don Perata (D-Oakland) on Monday said that the state is “ill-prepared” for spills because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has failed to make key appointments to regional water boards or fully fund and staff California oil spill prevention programs.

eric.bailey@latimes.com

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

tim.reiterman@latimes.com


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