Last Wednesday’s 58,000-gallon oil spill into San Francisco Bay is now recognized as a full-fledged ecological horror story. But during those first key hours after the Cosco Busan container ship crashed into a Bay Bridge tower, there was no way this would have been known by the public — or even by the San Francisco first responders who could have provided help — because of misleadingly optimistic information put out by maritime officials.
At this point, the Bay Area seems almost as angry about the apparently confused and slow early response by the U.S. Coast Guard as it is about the environmental devastation still spreading along the Bay shores and out to the seacoast. Our irreplaceable Bay will be recovering for years from this indefensible damage done to its fisheries, wildlife, beaches, wetlands and water quality.
The Northern California congressional delegation has been lining up to demand an all-out cleanup effort and in-depth investigation of this horrendous accident’s causes. Discovering the truth of why the incident happened is vital not so much to punish any guilty parties — although that will also be a positive result. But we have to know why an 810-foot-long ship equipped with the latest electronic navigation instruments could not pass safely through a fogbound 2,200-foot-wide shipping channel, so there can be less chance of it happening again in the future.
So far, suspicions are being spread confusingly between possible human error by a harbor pilot with 25 years of experience but a not-quite-immaculate record, a possible communication breakdown from a Chinese-speaking crew on the ship and in San Francisco Bay for the first time, and possible but as-yet-unconfirmed reports of radar equipment breakdown. Stronger safeguards on any of these factors could be established if investigations uncover specific faults.
But we especially have to know why it took almost eight hours for the Coast Guard to realize the Bay had been fouled by a spill of 58,000 gallons — not the miniscule 140 gallons originally reported. Occasional accidents are a near-certainty in high-traffic harbors such as ours and the only chance to minimize oil-spill destruction is to rush in maximum containment equipment before the slick spreads too widely. Because that did not happen here last week, we are now seeing those pathetic images of hundreds of oil-soaked sea birds and the rest of the too-familiar destructive fallout from a commercial waterways oil spill.
The blunt lesson from this failure to prevent or even quickly contain the latest destruction emergency is that Bay Area authorities must do better. It does not bode well for our recovery from any massive regionwide disaster if emergency responders cannot coordinate a swift, effective attack on a spreading oil spill.
With all the earthquake faults, wildland-area construction and tempting terrorist targets in the Bay Area, it is not a question of whether we will face a major emergency again — it is just a question of how soon.