Coast Guard must get act together

Under Coast Guard policy, the job of safely guiding a massive cargo ship through tricky, often fog-shrouded waters rightly cannot be entrusted to the hands of a pilot whose judgment has been impaired by a physical condition such as a sleep disorder or the drugs needed to treat it.

But, if federal officials and others involved in the investigation surrounding the ecologically calamitous passage of the Cosco Busan under the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7 are correct, the ship’s captain has sleep apnea, takes a judgment-impairing medication for it and unacceptably was allowed to pilot the vessel that fall morning.

Federal officials and others close to the Cosco Busan probe told The Associated Press that not only does the ship’s pilot, John Cota, have sleep apnea — a breathing condition that can interrupt sleep and leave its sufferers extremely weary during the day — but he also was said to be taking modafinil, a sleep-apnea drug known to adversely affect judgment, and possibly another prescription to treat anxiety.

The revelation calls into question the Coast Guard’s pilot-licensing procedures, which may be as murky as the waters of the San Francisco Bay. That may be particularly the case if American Pilots Association Executive Director Paul Kirchener’s assertion that pilot medical information sent to the Coast Guard “goes behind closed doors” is true.

The news also has raised concerns among several members of Congress, including the chairman of a House subcommittee on maritime transportation, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who has encouragingly called for a thorough examination of the Coast Guard’s licensing of Capt. Cota.

G. Ross Wheatley, chief of investigations for the Coast Guard’s San Francisco sector, says prescription drugs are “certainly a part of our investigation,” as they should be. But the task of ascertaining whether a potential ship pilot is using a medication whose known side effects can include hallucination, depression, anxiety, mania and thoughts of suicide should be conducted well before a license is granted — and certainly before the pilot navigates his vessel into a major bridge, rupturing the ship and causing 58,000 gallons of fuel oil to be spilled into the Bay.

That the Coast Guard has had tragic examples of why mariners and medication are not a good mix is on the record. For example, in 2003, a pilot for the Staten Island Ferry in New York passed out at the helm with prescription-strength pain-killing medication in his system, causing a crash that killed 11 commuters.

There have been far too many ship-bridge accidents in San Francisco Bay lately for comfort — the barge Cascade struck the Ricmond-San Rafael Bridge on Jan. 10, fortuitously not spilling any of the 65,195 gallons of oil it was carrying — and the Coast Guard must come up with a reliably airtight protocol for vetting ship pilot licenses before another Cosco Busan-like disaster occurs.

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