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Dead Sea 

An unpublished study shows the surprisingly lethal effects of the Cosco Busan oil spill. Why are government scientists helping the ship's owner keep it a secret?

Wednesday, Feb 24 2010
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Page 5 of 5

Richard Carson, a UC San Diego economics professor and expert on environmental policy, said the integrity and effectiveness of cooperation between government officials and polluters on damage assessments depends, in large part, on whether the polluter acts in good faith. It's not always the case that they do.

"The problem that comes about is that there's a big difference in the behavior of responsible parties," he said. "Some very much want to cooperate. Other potentially responsible parties adopt a strategy of fighting everything along the way, and that's because there can be very large financial upsides to delay."

Some familiar with the Cosco Busan damage assessment say the corporate interests behind the ship have taken the latter route.

Fleet Management pleaded guilty last August in federal court to charges of water pollution and falsifying documents, agreeing to pay a $10 million criminal penalty. (The latter charge stemmed from the company's effort to present Coast Guard investigators with false documents to interfere with their investigation of the crash.)

But far more is at stake in the U.S. and California governments' pending civil suits against Fleet Management and Regal Stone. The lawsuits aim to recover cash damages associated with the cleanup and environmental restoration of San Francisco Bay. Cleanup costs alone have been estimated at $70 million.

Officials involved firsthand in the Cosco Busan damage assessment say that private scientific consultants hired by the freighter's owners and operators have tried hard to influence the government's damage assessment, and have pushed back with particular vigor against the findings of the 2009 toxicity study at Bodega Marine Lab. The consultants' interest in softening scientific conclusions that might prove harmful to their employers in the shipping industry has been clear, said Myers, the NOAA scientist.

"They were all over us" during the 2009 phototoxicity study, Myers said. "They don't want to set a precedent. The amounts of exposure here, in some cases, were really low. If they settle in this case, and admit liability, it could really open them up in the future." When asked which of the study's findings have been contested by the Cosco Busan representatives since the report was finished, another government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had this to say: "Everything."

Walsh, the lawyer for Fleet Management and Regal Stone, said the involvement of his clients' scientists has conformed to federal and state law, and that their extensive comments criticizing the 2009 toxicity report on herring were produced for the government's administrative record — and not with the expectation that the report itself would be altered.

Do Regal Stone and Fleet Management exercise too much control over the government tasked with assessing the extent of the damage they have done to the water and wildlife of San Francisco Bay? Walsh, and the shipping companies, would argue quite the opposite.

"At the end of the day, they have the final say," he said of federal and state regulators. "Whether we have too much influence or not? My clients would tell you we probably don't have enough."

Read the full government report on the toxicity of Cosco Busan bunker fuel as well as criticism from shipping company consultants at www.sfweekly.com/microsites/report.

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Peter Jamison

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