Bay Crossings Article

Tanker Hits Bridge: A Wake-Up Call for Lovers of the Bay

Deb Self
From the March 2013 edition of Bay Crossings

When an oil tanker hit one of the Bay Bridge towers on a foggy morning in early January, it was a wake-up call for everyone who cares about San Francisco Bay. The collision between the tanker, the Overseas Reymar, and the bridge could have led to a real disaster.

The tanker was carrying no oil as cargo. But it had just filled up with 245,000 gallons of bunker fuel used to run the tanker itself, in preparation for leaving the Bay. If the ship had hit the bridge hard enough to rupture the fuel tanks, it could have been worse than in 2007, when the container ship Cosco Busan hit the Bay Bridge. That collision split open two fuel tanks. About 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel leaked out, killing thousands of birds and a generation of herring, and leaving a suffocating oil ring around the Bay’s shorelines.

Although it was a relief that the Overseas Reymar crash did not pollute the Bay, it was a close call. The accident highlighted the need for going back to the drawing board to assess measures to prevent oil spills.

And in February, Baykeeper did just that. We worked with the U.S. Coast Guard, the state’s oil spill agency and master mariners to develop new rules that will provide a new measure of protection. These rules limit cargo ships, oil tankers and other large vessels from leaving safe anchorage south of the Bay Bridge in heavy fog.

The rules certainly will reduce the risk of oil spills in San Francisco Bay. Though they are temporary, they will be in place until the San Francisco Harbor Safety Committee completes a comprehensive assessment of current and potential low-visibility restrictions. Baykeeper will be very active in this analysis and any new recommendations.

Some background: After the Cosco Busan oil spill, new rules were put in place. Ships weren’t allowed to leave the Port of Oakland with less than a half-mile of visibility. Ship travel under the Union Pacific railroad bridge in Benicia was also strictly regulated in foggy conditions, but the Bay Bridge itself was not included. So ships have been allowed to leave commonly-used anchorage areas in the waters south of the Bay Bridge, travelling north and under the bridge, in any conditions—even with zero visibility.

The latest Coast Guard rules close that loophole, though they still allow inbound ships to transit under the Bay Bridge to reach safe harbor. Baykeeper strongly supports this exception. During heavy fog, it will prevent increased ship traffic in the central Bay or outside the Golden Gate, which would increase the risk of an accident and potentially impact whales that feed in the shipping lanes near the Farallon Islands.

For better understanding of gaps in prevention and oversight, San Francisco Baykeeper looks forward to learning the causes of the Overseas Reymar-Bay Bridge accident. Two federal agencies, the Coast Guard and National Safety Transportation Board, are conducting investigations. So is the Board of Pilot Commissioners, a state agency that licenses the pilots who steer massive ships in and out of port through the Bay. Baykeeper is monitoring new information as it is released.

Baykeeper is also concerned about whether there is adequate safety oversight of bar pilots. After a major Texas ship accident three years ago, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all states with ports adopt minimum rest periods between jobs to prevent errors due to bar pilot fatigue. Unfortunately, California took the position that the Board of Pilot Commissioners lacked the authority to oversee bar pilot work schedules. But now the state is conducting a study to determine if minimum rest periods are needed to ensure that pilots are well-rested.

The license renewal process for pilots may also need to change. Apparently, pilot’s licenses are automatically renewed every five years, except for pilots who fail a medical exam. Baykeeper is learning more about the oversight process. Assessment of performance and near-misses may help ensure that pilots with a record of poor judgment are identified early enough for remedial training, discipline or suspension.

Baykeeper will continue to represent the Bay and the public in the decision-making process about how to best protect San Francisco Bay from oil spills. We’re proud to be at the table on your behalf.