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Failure On All Fronts Oil spill in San Francisco Bay underscores deficiencies in safety regulations and rules of the sea.

Failure On All Fronts

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Posted: Thursday, December 6, 2007 12:00 am | Updated: 12:07 pm, Fri May 17, 2013.

The first headline the San Francisco Chronicle ran after the Cosco Busan crashed into a Bay Bridge protective fender Nov. 7 implied that nothing terrible had happened. It read, almost comically, “CRUNCH!” Initial reports suggested that only a few hundred gallons of fuel oil had spilled from the gash in the 810-foot freighter’s hull. The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) assured the public that the system had worked: the fender had absorbed the blow, the bridge had suffered no damage, and motorists had no cause for concern.

It wasn’t until much later in the day that the public learned just how big an ecological disaster was unfolding in the bay. And the most disturbing evidence is only now becoming clear: this was an accident waiting to happen. The regulations and processes in place to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in the bay—where thousands of ships with tanks carrying foul and toxic fuel oil sail through a fragile ecosystem every year—were, and are, tragically inadequate.

Just look at the record so far:­

  • The Coast Guard’s Vehicle Traffic Service (VTS) on Yerba Buena Island, which has extensive radar and electronic tracking devices, was clearly aware that the container ship was heading for a collision—but was unable to stop it. The fog was thick, and the ship, which had just made a wide “S” turn out of the Port of Oakland, was far from the center of the 1,200-foot-wide channel under the bridge. The Coast Guard could hardly have missed what was going on.

    In fact, according to news reports, a VTS staffer radioed the bar pilot at the helm of the ship minutes before the crash and warned him that he was on an errant course. “Your [compass] heading is 235. What are your intentions?” the VTS staffer asked (essentially saying, in nautical-radio speak, “What the hell are you doing?”). The pilot, John Cota, insisted he was heading right for the center of the span and not to worry, his lawyer told reporters.

    Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if air traffic controllers at San Francisco International Airport saw a commercial jet flying off course in zero-visibility fog and heading for the top of San Bruno Mountain. The controllers wouldn’t ask the captain what his intentions were; they would announce an imminent crash and order him to immediately increase altitude, change course…whatever was necessary. The captain wouldn’t argue that his or her instruments said everything was fine; the airliner would change course at once and sort out the question of instrument accuracy after it was out of harm’s way.

    But traffic regulators on the bay operate under different rules. Even a minor course change would have prevented the accident—but according to VTS rules posted on the Web, the Coast Guard has no authority (other than in times of national-security alerts) to directly order preventative action. Under centuries-old rules of the sea, the captain of a ship is in total control and can’t be told what to do, even if a disaster is looming—and modern safety regulations haven’t caught up to that tradition.
  • The ship was sailing under terrible conditions, with almost zero visibility, and even some bay captains say running a 70,000-ton vessel in an area like this in fog that thick is a bad idea. But the shipping companies have so much money on the line that nobody wants to slow down the schedules.
  • It’s no secret where the fuel tanks are in a ship like this. The moment the ship took a gash that size in the hull, the authorities should have assumed that a sizable and extremely dangerous spill was in the works and begun immediate emergency containment procedures. But somehow just about everyone seemed to believe the initial reports that the crew of the ship had transferred the fuel away from the hole and only a trivial amount had escaped.

    Remember, we’re talking about a rip of 100 feet, one-eighth the length of the ship, right in the part of the hull where half a million gallons of nasty bunker fuel were stored. Emergency responders should have known a spill was inevitable and gone into action right away.

    Yet hours passed. No public warning was issued. Bay swimmers continued to take their morning notations—and some came back covered with oil. Nobody knew what was going on.
  • The day after the spill, when it was clear an ecological disaster was happening in the bay, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom split town and went on vacation.
  • So far, the taxpayers are picking up the tab for the cleanup—and in the end, it may prove difficult to get the owner of the ship to pay, even if faulty navigation equipment on the Cosco Busan was at least partly the cause of the spill. The companies that own these big ships use layers of dummy corporations, legal tricks, and secretive contracts to protect them from liability. In this case, the Chronicle has reported, the Cosco Busan is a Chinese vessel owned by either a company in Cyprus or one in Hong Kong and managed by a separate Hong Kong outfit. It’s going to take years to get to the bottom of who should pay for this mess.

Meanwhile, the crab-fishing industry is out of business, and the economic impact will be dramatic


There are obvious lessons here—and the first is that the public and all of the regulatory and response agencies at every level of government have to stop taking a nonchalant, hands-off attitude toward the ships that represent an ecological time bomb in the bay.

Shipping is part of the lifeblood of the local economy, and everyone who lives in the Bay Area has to live with the fact that giant steel vessels loaded with toxic fluids are going to be passing through a diverse and easily damaged eco-system every day of every year for the foreseeable future. But there’s a lot that can be done to make it safer.

For starters, the VTS ought to have the mandate and the authority to regulate shipping traffic in the same way that air traffic controllers regulate planes. Among other things, the service should keep ships in port when the fog is that thick and conditions aren’t safe. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is mad about the spill response, and that’s fine—but she and her Bay Area congressional colleagues ought to push for legislation that would allow the Coast Guard to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

There’s a desperate need for a bay spill early-warning system—something that could go into effect the moment there’s a possibility of oil fouling the water, get containment crews on hand quickly and let the public know the hazards. That’s something the state Legislature should move on immediately.

Perhaps Congress should mandate that ships passing through U.S. coastal waters post an accident bond to ensure they don’t escape liability for disasters. But for now, the federal government needs to seize the Cosco Busan, impound its cargo, and make it clear that nothing is going anywhere until the bill for this catastrophe is settled.

And the state and federal governments need to compensate the crab fishers—and then collect the money from the ship’s owners to cover those costs.  


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