Bay Bridge bumper bits lost

Massive hunks of black plastic have eluded authorities in San Francisco Bay since they were torn off a Bay Bridge tower earlier this month by the Cosco Busan, according to a federal official with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The bases of the Bay Bridge’s towers are surrounded by patchworks of wood, hard plastic and steel that reduce damage from ship collisions. When the 900-foot container ship scraped against one of the towers, it tore open its hull, allowing 58,000 gallons of shipping fuel to escape, and it blasted some of the bridge’s protective fender system into the Bay.

Most of the debris from the fender was never found, despite an intensive search, according to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers local operations chief Mike Dillabough.

There’s a “remote chance” some is still floating in the Bay, he said, adding that it could resurface in the Bay, where it could cause an accident if it collides with a ship or a boat.

“We were able to gather the wood,” Dillabough said. “The only things that were missing were these massive constructions of rubber that do not break apart.”

“It floats about 3 or 4 inches below the water and it’s black,” he said. “It’s black stuff in black water. We only picked up one section, and it was very difficult to find.”

Dillabough estimated that the roughly 15 tons of plastic collected was about one-third of what fell in the water. He said the plastic would have been easier to find if contractors had used a brighter color.

Some of the rest could have floated out to sea on high tides that followed the crash, Dillabough said, and some could have sunk and become lodged in mud, especially since someof it was bound to steel.

How much plastic fell into the water is unknown, because it’s hard to estimate how much remained on the bridge, according to a spokesman for the company that upgraded the fender last year and was called on this month by the California Department of Transportation to replace the broken section.

About 33 tons of steel and 43 tons of black “plastic lumber,” made from recycled plastic, will be used to build the new section of fender, according to Robert Ikenberry of Pleasanton-based California Engineering Contractors. He said wood would be left out of the new design.

Removal of the damaged fender is scheduled to begin today, according to Department of Transportation spokeswoman Lauren Wonder, and the new fender is expected to be in place by mid-January.

Until then, a barge is stationed next to the tower to act as a barrier, according to Wonder, although it will sometimes leave the tower to pick up fender supplies.

Hearing on crash

The state Senate’s Natural Resources Committee will hold an investigative hearing — called by state Sen. Carole Migden — into the Cosco Busan crash at 9 a.m. Friday at the state Capitol, Room 4203, in Sacramento.

jupton@examiner.com

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