Editorial: Lessons of the Cosco Busan crash

Those multiple investigations of the disastrous Cosco Busan oil spill are slowly grinding out criminal charges in the crash, which fouled 50 miles of local shoreline with 53,000 gallons of dumped fuel, killed some 2,500 birds and cost upwards of $60 million to clean up.

A trial date for harbor pilot John Cota has tentatively been set for Nov. 17, while six federal felony indictments have been brought against the operators of the 901-foot container ship, which slammed into a Bay Bridge tower Nov. 7 in dense fog.

Fleet Management of Hong Kong is charged with postdating bogus harbor-navigation instructions after the accident, a violation of federal requirements that all ships entering U.S. waters must carry a detailed and complete “passage plan.” The indictment also charges Fleet Management with environmental misdemeanor crimes under the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

A brand-new Chinese-speaking crew had come aboard the ship just two weeks before the crash. Fleet Management is also accused of not training that crew in proper use of the navigation equipment, not fully reviewing the ship’s course before setting sail and not posting an adequate fog lookout. On each of the federal charges, Fleet Management could be fined twice the value of any losses it is found guilty of causing.

Additionally, this new indictment package raises some truly disturbing implications about the extreme fragility of San Francisco Bay. Our waters now seem even more vulnerable than previously thought. If it is so easy for overseas shippers to flout U.S. navigational requirements without getting caught unless they are unlucky enough to have an accident, aren’t these new allegations against Fleet Management just the tip of the iceberg?

An estimated 2,000 ships per year enter California harbors, and most of them are sailed by foreign crews under foreign flags. How many more of the hundreds of big freighters entering San Francisco Bay are manned by unprepared crews with limited English communication skills and unfamiliar navigation electronics — as is alleged to have been the situation aboard the Cosco Busan?

The public will obtain satisfaction in seeing those found guilty of causing the oil spill receive meaningful penalties. But it is much more important to rapidly apply what we learn from the investigations and implement a radically better system than has ever existed for safeguarding San Francisco Bay ship traffic.

Many of the most basic improvements needed are already well-known and were named in our Nov. 22 editorial. Cargo ships should not even be allowed to sail through the Bay under dense fog. San Francisco harbor pilots should carry their own laptop computers with electronic charts, so they don’t need to depend solely on the ship’s systems. And on all foreign-crewed freighters, harbor pilots should be accompanied by native-speaking translators paid through ship-owner fees.

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