More than two years after a medically unfit bar pilot plowed a cargo ship into a Bay Bridge tower, the waterway remains vulnerable to further oil spills because other bar pilots may be unfit for duty.
The nearly 60 local bar pilots who guide ships through San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun bays came under intense scrutiny in late 2007 after a colleague, Capt. John Cota, directed the Cosco Busan container ship into the bridge, causing a 53,500-gallon oil spill.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded that Cota, who is serving a 10-month federal prison sentence in Arizona for his role in the accident, was an ill man whose use of powerful painkillers and other prescription drugs contributed to the environmentally devastating accident.
The Coast Guard revoked Cota’s license after it learned of his long list of medical problems, which included sleep apnea and recent surgeries, and California lawmakers introduced new regulations designed to help weed out medically unfit bar pilots.
Under the new regulations, bar pilots must have their health checked annually by an approved physician.
However, the California Board of Pilot Commissioners for San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun bays has failed to fully implement the regulations, California State Auditor Elaine Howle found.
Three new bar pilots were issued licenses before undergoing a physical exam, Howle found after surveying seven new bar pilots. One of them piloted 18 vessels for more than 28 days before he received a physical examination.
Additionally, the licenses of six out of 14 surveyed bar pilots were issued or renewed after their physical exams were performed by non-approved physicians, Howle wrote in an audit report released this week.
The audit also faulted the board for failing to investigate accidents as promptly as required by California law.
The board is taking steps to improve its compliance with state law, President Knute Miller wrote in a response to Howle.
“The audit report provides the board with a road map to the way ahead,” Miller wrote.
Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco-San Mateo, whose legislation triggered the audit, said Wednesday that he was saddened by its findings.
“We just cannot be careful enough,” he said.
Number of accidents that may have involved pilot error in San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun bays between January 2007 and March 2009:
1: Collision between two ships
4: Ship touched ground beneath shallow water
4: Wake from a ship affected a moored vessel
11: Ship struck a fixed object, such as a pier or bridge tower
Source: California State Auditor