Prediction of spill’s path called inaccurate 

Ship fuel cleanup efforts after the Cosco Busan struck the Bay Bridge early this month were guided for two hours by incorrect information on the direction of the slick as it spread in heavy fog around the Bay.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provided emergency workers with predictions of the trajectory of the Nov. 7 oil spill at noon that day — more than three hours after the crash, according to congressional testimony by the agency.

Emergency workers charged with containing and collecting the 58,000 gallons of fuel that gushed from the hull of the container ship relied on NOAA’s predictions of the direction of the oil spill, which two NOAA officials on Thursday admitted were inaccurate.

Federal officials are already under fire for how they handled the spill, one of the worst environmental disasters to hit the Bay in decades. After the accident, the U.S. Coast Guard told city officials and the public that hundreds of gallons of fuel had spilled, but after nightfall it updated that figure to 58,000 gallons.

The U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday defended NOAA’s faulty predictions.

"The oil didn’t cooperate with what NOAA predicted it was supposed to do," said local Coast Guard Capt. David Swatland, who helped coordinate the federal response to the spill. "Which is Mother Nature — it’s not completely predictable."

Heavy fog prevented emergency workers from visually surveying the slick from the air until 2 p.m., according to Steve Ricks, a vice president at the Marine Spill Response Corporation, which was hired by the container ship’s insurer to mop up the fuel.

"We couldn’t see it," Ricks told a packed special meeting of the Harbor Safety Committee on Thursday. "We didn’t know where it was."

NOAA Commander Gerry Wheaton testified at the meeting that new technology could help improve future predictions and improve the agency’s understanding of surface currents.

"The equipment is coming — the issue is how to integrate the information into one package," Wheaton said. "Too much information can hamper. Not enough information can hamper."

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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