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Scientists: Oil Spill Imperils Wildlife

A sign warns of oil in the water at Fort Baker with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background near Sausalito, Calif., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2007.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Assessment and recovery teams hit the skies, waters and beaches Friday trying to contain the damage from a 58,000-gallon oil spill that has stained some of Northern California's coastline.

Oil skimmers, surveillance flights and shoreline cleanup teams continued to mop up the damage as questions persisted about why the Coast Guard took so long to report the scope of the spill.

The spill, believed to be the biggest in the bay since 1988, has fouled miles of coastline, closed several beaches, canceled weekend outdoor events and threatened thousands of birds and marine animals.

"The effects of the oil spill could persist for months and possibly years," said Tina Swanson, a fish biologist with the Bay Institute.

Local officials and environmentalists criticized the Coast Guard for initially underreporting the amount of oil that leaked when the South Korea-bound container ship struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in dense fog Wednesday morning.

City officials said they were being told more than 12 hours after the incident that just 140 gallons had leaked into the bay.

"We would have responded differently if we had accurate information from the get-go," said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Mayor Gavin Newsom.

Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the Coast Guard's top official in California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, didn't explain the delay but said it "is not acceptable." He said the Coast Guard's response to the incident was immediate and aggressive.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency Friday due to the spill after meeting with state, federal and local officials at a command post at Fort Mason. He said he is satisfied with the pace and scope of clean-up efforts.

The emergency proclamation makes additional state personnel and equipment available to speed up the process.

Schwarzenegger also directed a state office charged with preventing and responding to oil spills to dip into an industry-financed trust fund to help pay for the cleanup.

"How does a ship, with that much space available, how does a ship hit the bridge?" Schwarzenegger asked as he was shown a map of the bay and where the vessel struck the bridge.

"That's what we're investigating," Coast Guard Capt. William Uberti, captain of the Port of San Francisco, answered. "That shouldn't have happened."

The accident did not damage the span, but the vessel's hull was gashed, officials said.

Tides carried a plume of heavy fuel beneath the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean. By Thursday afternoon, oil had been sighted about 15 miles north of the city, and at least eight beaches in San Francisco and Marin County were closed.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone reports that oil is washing up around the shores of Alcatraz, which, aside from being a tourist attraction as a former prison, is also an important bird habitat.

Wildlife rescue workers and volunteers combing beaches have found dozens of dead and injured seabirds coated in black oil, said Michael Ziccardi, director of the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network. Ten to 15 teams were to be dispatched Friday to search for more.

More than 30 oiled birds, mostly surf scoters that live on the water's surface, were taken to a mobile treatment center at Fort Mason, Ziccardi said. Most will be taken to a wildlife care center to be cleaned and rehabilitated before being released into the wild.

Wildlife officials are concerned that the region's sea lions and harbor seals could also be affected, though there were no confirmed reports of injured marine mammals. Officials and fishermen also worried that the spill could hurt several species of fish.

Sen. Barbara Boxer criticized the Coast Guard's response in a letter sent to Commandant Adm. Thad W. Allen, saying she was "very troubled by the Coast Guard's delay in delivering accurate information to the public and the city of San Francisco. Many questions remain as to why it took an entire day to determine the gravity of this spill."

Uberti said Coast Guard personnel knew the full extent of the spill by around 4 p.m. He rejected any suggestion that the crews could have contained the spill more quickly.

"We mobilized as if it was a big spill right away," Uberti said.

Some 9,500 gallons of fuel was recovered, and 18,000 feet of booms were in place by Thursday afternoon, the Coast Guard said.

Authorities were still investigating the cause of the crash.