Most of the oil that spilled into San Francisco Bay when a Chinese-owned container ship struck the Bay Bridge will never be retrieved and eventually will be absorbed into the ecosystem, authorities said.
The US Coast Guard, which was heading the response to the 219,547-liter spill, acknowledged miscommunication with local officials, but insisted on Friday it did not impede their efforts to corral the oil.
Tides carried the heavy fuel that poured from the ship's oil tank under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific Ocean, fouling kilometers of coastline, closing several beaches, canceling weekend outdoor events and threatening thousands of birds and other marine life.
It is believed to be the biggest spill in the bay since 1988.
The pilot who was guiding the container ship away from the Port of Oakland when it hit the bridge piling on Wednesday said he had notified authorities immediately and soon after alerted them that there was a sheen of oil on the water, his attorney said in a statement.
It took cleanup crews at least 90 minutes to respond, "which, of course, allowed the spill to spread," said the statement from captain John Cota's attorney, John Meadows.
Coast Guard logs of the day's events show a response team on the scene in about a half hour, but it took much longer for oil-skimming vessels to arrive.
Rear Admiral Craig Bone said the agency should have done a better job keeping local authorities informed.
"That is not acceptable," he said.
"What I want to impress upon people is, there was an immediate response, there was an immediate response to prevent further loss, there was an immediate response to gather as much as you possibly can," Bone said.
Oil skimmers and shoreline cleanup crews continued mopping up the damage. But as the oil spreads and dissipates, crews will find "diminishing returns" in their skimming efforts, said Barry McFarley, whose private recovery firm, the O'Brien Group, was hired by the ship's owner to handle its response to the spill.
On Friday, 35,960 liters of oil had been sucked up. Lieutenant Rob Roberts, an investigator with the California Department of Fish and Game, said by the weekend most of the oil would be beyond containment and capture. Most of the fuel will dissolve into the water, but some globules could remain and cause problems for birds for months.
"Oil and feathers don't mix," said Yvonne Addassi, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Fish and Game. "This is not good for the birds."
Fish and Game officials said they have received hundreds of reports of oiled birds found on Bay Area beaches. So far, 73 live birds have been recovered and sent to a recovery center in Solano County. Seventeen were found dead.
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency after meeting with officials. The proclamation makes additional personnel, funding and equipment available.