Let’s pile on for a spill-safe Bay

If ever an issue deserved to be triple-teamed by city, state and federal politicians eager to be associated with voter-pleasing investigations, hearings and legislation, it would be the Nov. 7 oil spill in the Bay. The aftermath of the 58,000 gallons spewed when the Cosco Busan collided with a Bay Bridge tower has already proven that the public was lulled into false security about the supposed effectiveness of ship-traffic safeguards for the busy and fragile Bay environment.

Only Monday San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera followed the example of federal prosecutors by filing a negligence lawsuit against the owners and operators of the cargo ship. And last week the state Board of Pilot Commissioners filed misconduct charges against Cosco Busan pilot John Cota, alleging that the 26-year veteran should have known better than to take the 900-foot container vessel out to sea with a possibly flawed electronic charting system during a dense fog.

As for hearings, the Bay Area congressional delegation, state lawmakers and San Francisco Board of Supervisors have already weighed in with one-day sessions. These were not enough to really uncover much in the way of new data. But elected officials got to raise serious charges against the existing spill-response system and occasionally push various agencies and contractors into pointing the finger at one another.

Useful new anti-spill legislation is starting to pour out. Last Thursday, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced bills to increase liability limits for commercial ship owners and to give Coast Guard harbor dispatchers authority comparable to air traffic controllers.

Meanwhile, the Bay Area delegations of the state Senate and Assembly pledged that complementary packages of legislative safeguards are being prepared for January introduction. State Sen. Carole Migden began last Wednesday with a bill requiring that cleanup of Bay oil spills must effectively begin within two hours, instead of the current six hours when tides already spread the spill beyond control.

Next day, an Assembly quintet gathered at the Cosco Busan dry-dock to promote bills that would deliver additional response funds with a 25 cent per gallon tax on imported oil; require private companies to use the best available cleanup technology (alleged not to have been the case Nov. 7); ensure that local emergency agencies be immediately informed of oil spills; and require tugboats to actively escort virtually all ships traversing the Bay.

One important proposal is encountering unwarranted resistance: The state senators called on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to authorize an independent investigation of the oil spill by the California state auditor, and so far they are being rebuffed. The Examiner holds that an independent meta-investigation with full subpoena powers is vital to ensure that all the many specialized investigations do not obscure important evidence by, in effect, trampling over crime-scene clues.

The Bay deserves and needs not only a coordinated investigative effort, but also a coordinated interagency plan to prevent future ecological disasters, and most vital of all, a truly enforceable system to ensure that the safeguards are being carried out.

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