Friday, November 9, 2007

Biggest Oil Spill in San Francisco since the 80's

If you don't already know, California got slammed again by another environmental disaster--but this one's not an act of God, but an act of humans. Granted, this was on a smaller scale than the southern California wildfires (then again, humans were behind some of those, too). Anyway. On Wednesday, a container ship headed from the Port of Oakland on a morning socked in by fog--which is common here, mind you--hit the Bay Bridge.

Let me say that again. The ship hit the Bay Bridge.

The bridge is fine. The ship is not. It let loose almost 60,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay. Here is a picture of the water at the Berkeley Marina:

At least eight beaches have already been closed along the bay's coastside, reaching all the way from San Francisco's beaches (China Beach, Baker Beach, Fort Point, Crissy Field), to the Angel Island shoreline, and pretty much up to Richmond. In the opposite direction, the spill goes as far as Muir Beach into Marin County. And let me tell you, some of the beaches are BLACK. It's horrible.

Rescuers are pulling sea birds out of the water. Many of them, feathers slimed by oil, are dead. Other marine animals and fish may be affected as well, such as our city's harbor seals and sea lions, like the ones who hang out at Pier 39.

What hurts even more is that this accident was, most likely, avoidable. In the entire history of the Bay Bridge, no ship has ever struck it. Despite the fact that there was fog, captains piloting ships into the Bay Area have always dealt with this problem, and the captain of the ship that hit the bridge has been a bar pilot for more than 25 years. Besides this, in fog, navigation mostly depends on the ship's electronics, much like airplane pilots depend on electronics. (Consider how many planes land at San Francisco Airport in the same conditions. The fog wasn't so bad that flights in and out of SFO were cancelled that day.)

And airplane pilots at SFO deal with much less navigational space, from what I understand.

Capt. John Cota had a 131 feet wide ship. He was steering it between two support towers of the Bay Bridge. He had 2,210 feet of space to work with. He managed to hit one of the support towers.

Today I hear there is some question the captain had been drinking, or, since it was 8:30 or so in the morning, perhaps still intoxicated from the night before (shades of the Exxon Valdez!) Or perhaps he fell asleep. Or perhaps his job became so boring he was on his cell phone and let the electronics take over. Or, they failed. Who knows? There will have to be an investigation.

But according to the SF Chronicle, Capt. Cota has had four "incidents" of record involving investigations by the Board of Pilot Commissioners. (Then again, it was only four in fourteen years, and we all just love to beat up on a guy.)

I'm trying to be fair. In the meantime, my heart hurts.

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