Local crab fishermen used to take part in drills to clean up oil spills, scooping up rice – the stand-in for an oil slick – that drifted atop the waters of San Francisco Bay. Then, about a decade ago, that training stopped. So when a real oil spill occurred earlier this month, the crabbers didn't have up-to-date certifications or strong ties with first responders. The Coast Guard initially rebuffed their help.
"We began telling [state agencies] in 2000 that the training of our fishermen began to lapse," says Zeke Grader, head of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco. But "after 9/11 the Coast Guard was completely focused on the war on terror."
Spills happen, say experts, but poor coordination with local groups of the sort seen in San Francisco has everyone from Congress to independent researchers analyzing the communication breakdown. Certain changes within the Coast Guard in the wake of Sept. 11 have emerged as early focal points.
"It seems like they are holding their cards much closer to their vest," with a greater security emphasis after Sept. 11 bringing "a reinforcement of more of the command and control" mentality, says Duane Gill, an oil-spill researcher and a professor at Mississippi State University. "But in a situation like this, the flow of information is very important."
That information flow can go two ways, with local fishing communities knowing intimately the currents and other key details.
"The damage was probably exacerbated by the lack of ... this local knowledge and expertise in the response," adds Dr. Gill. In his many years studying oil-spill responses, he says, this same failure to include local help continues.
The Coast Guard dealt with fresh controversy late last week after it was reported that the city of San Francisco offered the help of a fire boat the morning of the spill – only to be rebuffed.
The revelation capped a trying week for Rear Adm. Craig Bone, who faced tough questioning by Congressional leaders.
Some lawmakers wondered if the federal government after Sept. 11 had added too many new duties to a service already loaded.
"I think post 9/11 ... we stretched the responsibilities of the Coast Guard, and we didn't bring along the expertise or the finances necessary to take on all those," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D) of Maryland, chairing a special House subcommittee hearing on maritime transportation last week.
Like many government entities, the Coast Guard has undergone major restructuring in recent years. The operations side – the search and rescue guys – merged with maritime safety and oil-spillresponse.
"I can see that the Coast Guard is straining with this reorganization," says Ron Morris, a retired Coast Guard captain who is now president of Alaska Clean Seas, an industry spill clean-up cooperative. The shuffle has put officers in charge of areas once entirely outside their domain, such as oil-spill response, he says.
However, he sees its merits, since it consolidates the Guard's assets in times of emergency.
The Coast Guard incident commander argued at the hearing that several ships were available immediately following the accident that in years past would have been off-limits since they belonged to search and rescue.
What strains there have been in recent years comes from the explosion in overall ship traffic, not from Sept. 11 duties, said Admiral Bone.
"We received more assets for the security portion" of the post-9/11 mission, said Bone. "At the same time the marine industry grew almost 100 percent, and what we didn't do is keep pace with the resources to provide [maritime] services."
Such funding tensions are not new. The service has been underfunded for decades, and at various times been asked to beef up port security, say experts,
"These are missions that the Coast Guard has had for most of the 20th century, it's just that the level of effort would wax and wane," says Mike Conway, a retired Coast Guard commander and former director of Alaska spill prevention.
The same focusing and fading of attention occurs with oil-spillresponse, he says.Some of the emerging details suggest attention waned: The training of fishermen stopped because the private company said it had no more money from the shipping companies. The state office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response got shortchanged on personnel requests, and struggled to fill vacancies with unattractive salaries. And despite state laws stipulating certain unannounced drills once every three years, they have not happened. Planned drills have taken place, including one last year involving more than 400 people. However, it did not flag potential breakdowns in communication.
The mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom, told the subcommittee that he first learned the true scope of the resulting oil slick from his car radio – a full 12 hours after the spill.
Calling the delay "unacceptable," Mr. Newsom suggested that while disaster response procedures have been tightened since 9/11, oil- spill response follows an "outdated" command structure "foreign to any other command protocol used for other emergencies."
On top of Newsom's call for reform in protocols, panelists put forth several other suggestions, including:
•Giving the Coast Guard authority to compel pilots to change direction.
•Mandating that fishermen be incorporated in oil-spill response.
•Double hulling not just tankers but the fuel compartments on other large ships.
Meanwhile, spill clean-up work continues, involving more than 860 workers who have cleaned at least 19 beaches. Crews have recaptured one-fifth of the oil – an above-average amount.