Four years after a container ship sideswiped the Bay Bridge, ripping open and spilling 53,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay, the people responsible for the spill have agreed to pay up.
Local, state and federal officials on Monday announced a $44.4 million civil settlement with the owners and operators of a container ship that spilled all those gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay after striking a tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy morning fog. These are the largest fines since 1989′s Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Well, good. That seems appropriate.
A Drug-Addled Pilot
It was on the morning of November 7, 2007, that John Cota, pilot of the Cosco Busan container ship, was so far under the influence of prescription drugs that he steered the ship right at a tower of the Bay Bridge. A crew member spotted the looming tower at the last minute, and clever steering allowed the ship to avoid a head-on collision, but when it scraped the base of the bridge, two fuel tanks tore open.
That error, combined with others made by a meek and poorly trained crew that did not follow protocol or confront the pilot when there was clearly a problem, and the fact that the U.S. Coast Guard failed to warn Cota that the ship was on course to hit the tower, led to the Bay’s worst environmental catastrophe in decades.
Almost 7,000 Birds Died
The damage was acute. An estimated 6,800 birds died; the herring fishery lost between a sixth and a third of its spawn; an estimated 1.1 million fishing, boating and shoreline trips were aborted due to the soiling of 3,367 acres of habitat.
“This bay is the jewel of the San Francisco region and the Cosco Busan oil spill left a lasting scar across our water, natural habitats and wildlife,” California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in a statement. “This settlement will allow all of these precious resources to be restored to their original health and beauty.”
The settlement comes in the form of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree negotiated with Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Ltd., the owners and operators of the M/V Cosco Busan. The state, the city and county of San Francisco and the city of Richmond also are parties to the decree.
Can the Habitat Be Fully Restored?
Let’s hope that Ms. Harris is correct; for now at least 10% of the oil-damaged habitat has still not recovered. And much of the area around the Exxon Valdez disaster is still dealing with the effects of that oil spill.
And let’s hope too that in the future, pilots of large container ships have strict instructions about how to conduct themselves when they are in charge.
Photo Credit: marinephotobank