S.F. Bay vulnerability on display

On the list of issues to worry about in the Bay Area, a massive oil spill inside San Francisco Bay has not ranked terribly high. Any local residents who might have considered the risk probably thought that with hundreds of huge ocean vessels — including dozens of oil tankers — sailing in and out of the Bay yearly, sooner or later accidental spills could happen. But all the modern technological precautions now in place had kept the central Bay safe from major spills until now, and with luck they just might continue to do so.

Unfortunately, the Bay’s luck ran out at about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the 900-foot Cosco Buson container ship departing the Port of Oakland with a full cargo of exports for South Korea scraped one of the wood-and-plastic “fenders” protecting the base of each tower holding up the Bay Bridge. To everybody’s undoubted relief, the bridge itself remained undamaged. But the impact gouged a 160-foot hole into one of the larger-than-Titanic ship’s fuel tanks, and some 58,000 gallons of heavy-duty bunker fuel oil spilled into the Bay.

As The Examiner goes to press, the oil slicks have reached beaches 40 miles north of San Francisco. Already ordered closed are Baker Beach, China Beach, Crissy Field, Fort Point, Alcatraz Island and two beaches on the Marin Headlands. Wildlife protection organizations are tending to oil-fouled birds and patrolling for injured sea lions or signs of dead fish.

Aside from the U.S. Coast Guard, at least 13 government agencies are either investigating the spill or involved in cleanup operations. Emergency salvage boats contracted by the damaged ship’s insurers have helped bring in 18,000 feet of “boom” floats and eight “skimmer” oil vacuums to confine and suction up the spill. As far as can be seen, everything that ought to be done in the aftermath of an oil spill isbeing done.

So far it still remains unknown whether mechanical failure or human error deserve any blame for the Cosco Buson suddenly veering left and hitting the bridge tower. At first glance, this appears to be an accident with no reason for happening. The harbor pilot navigating the ship out to sea had 25 years of experience on the Bay. The Cosco Buson was sailing in thick fog, but radar should have provided a clear view of the bridge towers and the buoys marking the fender edges. Wind and tide were not unusually strong, and the container ship had ample clearance through the northbound shipping channel.

The bottom line is that the 21st-century interconnectedness of global commerce will guarantee that giant ships laden with oil continue crossing the Pacific Ocean in and out of the Bay. So we need the current investigation to uncover the specific cause of this bridge collision and oil spill, to teach us something new that could make our beautiful San Francisco Bay even safer from future ecological emergencies.

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