California Oil Spill Crew Is Keeping Mum

An approximately 90-foot long gash stretches along the hull of the Cosco Busan as cargo is unloaded in Oakland, Calif., on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2007. AP

The crew of the cargo ship that spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay last week is refusing to speak with investigators, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Wednesday.

Meanwhile the Coast Guard, which has been criticized for its handling of the incident, said its commander for the bay region will no longer oversee the response to the spill. Capt. Paul Gugg will take over that job from Capt. William Uberti, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said Wednesday at a hearing on Capitol Hill.

"Given the concerns in the port and the fact that there's a lot of activity going on there and concerns about what may or may not have happened, we thought it was best at this time to bring in a new incident commander for this particular response," Allen said.

The spill occurred when a cargo ship's hull was sliced open by a collision with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog Nov. 7, an incident Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called an "unbelievable human failure." Federal prosecutors are conducting a criminal probe into the spill, and the governor also has promised an investigation.

Members of the Chinese crew have hired lawyers and are now declining to be questioned, said NTSB member Debbie Hersman. Some had spoken with Coast Guard officials earlier, but new criminal and civil investigations have apparently prompted the crew to refuse interviews, she said.

Some crew members were not immediately tested for drugs following the incident, the Coast Guard said Wednesday. They were eventually tested, but outside the legal time limits. Those test results are still pending.

U.S.-based Capt. John Cota, who was piloting the ship, was tested properly for drugs and alcohol, and the results were negative, officials said.

Cota said he immediately reported the presence of oil in the water, but cleanup crews didn't arrive on the scene for nearly 90 minutes. A Coast Guard log places a skimming vessel at the scene in 80 minutes.

Coast Guard officials defended their response as "by the book," but concede mistakes in their communication with the public. Initial reports had the spill at just 140 gallons; the Coast Guard waited hours after learning it was much larger before notifying local officials.

The Coast Guard will review its own response, a process that will include the city of San Francisco, the state of California and others. The aim is to evaluate the Coast Guard's planning and response.

Adm. Allen said such reviews normally wait until after cleanup operations. But because of the severity in this case, he is getting it under way immediately.

Meanwhile, many out-of-town fishermen were packing up and heading home after Schwarzenegger suspended all commercial and sport fishing in areas affected by the spill. The area's highly anticipated commercial season for Dungeness crab was scheduled to start Thursday but has now been postponed for at least 2½ weeks amid health concerns.

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