Oil spill hearing gets tap dance

If any public event might have produced meaningful answers about the Nov. 7 Cosco Busan oil spill, it should have been Monday’s Presidio hearing by the House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation, with an angry all-star panel featuring House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the seniority-laden Bay Area congressional delegation.

But while the three-hour session was a somewhat impressive spectacle, it was only impressive as an artful display of blowing smoke, tap dancing and fault denying. What we heard from the Coast Guard — in the person of Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the regional commander — was that spilling 58,000 gallons of toxic fuel into the Bay should be blamed entirely on the ship operator.

Bone also assured lawmakers that removal of the spill, which to date has contaminated some 40 miles of Bay shoreline and killed hundreds of birds, was “one of the most successfulcleanups I’ve ever experienced.” However, he did apologize for not alerting city officials — who had resources that could have helped — until some 12 hours after the container ship crashed into a Bay Bridge tower.

No doubt the Chinese-speaking ship crew and harbor pilot John Cota would probably have expressed different viewpoints about what went wrong. However, none of them testified at the hearing.

While Pelosi might have actually set a congressional speed record for summoning a hearing just two weeks after a disaster, she was hardly pleased about the evasiveness of testimony received. The House speaker made known her dissatisfaction that the Coast Guard and the California Fish and Game Department’s Spill Prevention and Response Office would be investigating their own roles in the Bay cleanup.

She was particularly unhappy to learn that the National Transportation Safety Board investigation could take as long as a year. In fact, Pelosi announced that she will ask the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee to have that department’s inspector general fully investigate the oil spill.

Despite the inappropriately comic relief of the hearing testimony, something very important has already been learned: It was badly mistaken to think an effective system safeguarding ship traffic in San Francisco Bay already existed, so a real one must be established considerably sooner than the NTSB one-year timeline. Apparently it was luck as much as protective measures that avoided a truly catastrophic Bay spill until now.

Therefore, we demand that some of the many investigations under way deliver satisfactory answers to very direct questions such as these:

Why are cargo ships even allowed to sail through the Bay in thick fog? San Francisco International Airport doesn’t take off and land airliners in zero visibility.

Why aren’t S.F. harbor pilots required to bring along their own laptops with electronic charts, so they don’t need to depend solely on the ship’s systems? This is already done in other cities whose ports are considerably less foggy than ours.

Since most freighters today are manned by foreign crews, why aren’t harbor pilots routinely accompanied by native-speaking translators paid for by ship-owner fees?

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