(11-08) 17:30 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- Heavy-duty bunker fuel oil has washed up on beaches throughout the San Francisco and Marin coastlines all day, leaving purplish sheens on the water, ugly black blobs in the sand, and hundreds of injured or dead birds.
Some 9,500 gallons of oil have been contained since a container ship rammed the Bay Bridge and spilled 58,000 gallons of its fuel Wednesday morning, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti said this afternoon. But as he spoke, questions were swirling about why it took so long for emergency officials to contain the mess - and who will be to blame for the environmental disaster building by the hour.
Oil began leaking into the water after the Cosco Busan, an 810-foot container ship that weighs 65,131 tons, crashed into a tower of the Bay Bridge's western span in heavy fog at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.
Within an hour, six emergency vessels from the Coast Guard and Marine Spill Response Corp. were on the scene, officials said. Yet even by 4 p.m. Wednesday, officials apparently believed only 140 gallons of oil had leaked into the water.
They later learned that the actual spill amount was 58,000 gallons, Uberti said. The new total was not announced to the public until 9 p.m.
Asked why they didn't release the higher spill count until five hours after they learned about it, Uberti said, "We were kind of busy...we were busy figuring this stuff out."
The Coast Guard and other agencies are investigating why the container ship hit the bridge. The bar pilot at the controls, John Cota, and the crew underwent drug and alcohol testing after the crash.
None of those tested had been drinking, the Coast Guard said. Results of the drug tests will not be available until next week, the agency said.
This is the first time in memory that an oceangoing ship has run into the bridge, which did not suffer major damage. The last big spill in the bay was in 1996, when a valve broke on the Cape Mohican ship at San Francisco's southeastern waterfront and dumped 40,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil into a floating dry dock.
By late afternoon, the oil from Wednesday's accident had spread south to Hunters Point and north to Brook Island off Richmond, the Coast Guard said. In the ocean, oil was reported from Stinson Beach to Ocean Beach.
As the scope of the disaster became known, anger and sadness grew.
"It's just heartbreaking," said Sally McFadden, 49-year-old birdwatcher from Larkspur. She went to Kirby Cove in the Marin Headlands to help and was shocked when she saw the oil-slathered rocks and sand.
"This is peak migration season for birds, and all the birdwatchers are excited about it - so it's at a particularly bad time," she said. Voice breaking with emotion, she added, "It's disturbing. These are all beaches that I love and spend a lot of time at."
The state Department of Fish and Game says 26 live, oiled birds have been recovered. Hundreds more are likely injured.
Coast Guard officials said 16 beaches have so far been contaminated and closed off, and large patches of oil are floating on the bay. Beaches closed include including Baker Beach, China Beach, Keller Beach, Point Isabel, Ferry Point, Caesar Chavez, Crissy Field and Fort Point.
Along Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands, National Park Service ranger Robert Del Secco kept visitors away from the beach, which is covered in dark clumps of oil.
The pungent oil scent can be smelled around the Bay Area.
Chris Godley, emergency services manager for Marin County, said slicks had appeared in the water near the North Bay shoreline.
One slick, 50 yards long and 20 yards wide, was seen off Paradise Drive in Tiburon. Another was seen in Richardson Bay near Bayfront Park in Mill Valley, Godley said.
Representative from 13 agencies met at Fort Mason to discuss the next steps.
The ship's owners called in a private cleanup company, O'Brien's Group of Southern California, immediately after the accident, Uberti said.
Barry McFarland, incident commander with the company, said that in addition to the fouled beaches, cleanup crews are concentrating on three main sheens of oil in the bay - one west of Treasure Island, a second north of the Bay Bridge and a third south of Angel Island.
Five vessels are in the bay and three are outside the Golden Gate looking for additional oil patches, he said. The company has laid down about 18,000 feet of containment boom, and about 115 people are at work in the field scooping up the oil.
McFarland could not say how long the effort would take.
"It's too early to tell any timeline," he said. "We'll be here for quite some time."
Wildlife officials said finding birds and other animals covered in oil is a high priority.
The spill threatens to coat the birds' feathers, making it impossible for them to stay warm when they get into the chilly bay water, said Dr. Mike Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. The UC Davis program organizes the wildlife aid response for the state Department of Fish and Game. The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito is also part of the network.
The most common species feeding at the Golden Gate at this time of year include western grebes and scoters.
"The birds' first response is to get out of the water (during a spill)," Ziccardi said. "They have a high metabolism and need to eat frequently. Because they're out of the water, they can't eat. They can become severely debilitated and can die unless brought into rehabilitation."
At the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Fairfield, "we get them warm, we get them rehydrated and we get the oil off of them. The more quickly we can respond, the better it will be," Ziccardi said.
Some of the injured birds are being taken to a recovery station at Fort Mason in San Francisco.
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