This oil spill -- and the next

There's a lot that can be done to make shipping in the Bay safer

EDITORIAL The first headline the San Francisco Chronicle ran after the Cosco Busan crashed into a Bay Bridge protective fender Nov. 7 implied that nothing terrible had happened. It read, almost comically, "CRUNCH!" Initial reports suggested that only a few hundred gallons of fuel oil had spilled from the gash in the 810-foot freighter's hull. Caltrans assured the public that the system had worked: the fender had absorbed the blow, the bridge had suffered no damage, and motorists had no cause for concern.

It wasn't until much later in the day that the public learned just how big an ecological disaster was unfolding in the bay. And the most disturbing evidence is only now becoming clear: this was an accident waiting to happen. The regulations and processes in place to prevent a catastrophic oil spill in the bay — where thousands of ships with tanks carrying foul and toxic fuel oil sail through a fragile ecosystem every year — were, and are, tragically inadequate.

Just look at the record so far:

The Coast Guard's Vehicle Traffic Service on Yerba Buena Island, which has extensive radar and electronic tracking devices, was clearly aware that the container ship was heading for a collision — but was unable to stop it.

The fog was thick, and the ship, which had just made a wide S turn out of the Port of Oakland, was far from the center of the 1,200-foot-wide channel under the bridge. The Coast Guard could hardly have missed what was going on.

In fact, according to news reports, a VTS staffer radioed the bar pilot at the helm of the ship minutes before the crash and warned him that he was on an errant course. "Your [compass] heading is 235. What are your intentions?" the VTS staffer asked (essentially saying, in nautical-radio speak, "What the hell are you doing?"). The pilot, John Cota, insisted he was heading right for the center of the span and not to worry, his lawyer told reporters.

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if air traffic controllers at San Francisco International Airport saw a commercial jet flying off course in zero-visibility fog and heading for the top of San Bruno Mountain. The controllers wouldn't ask the captain what his intentions were; they would announce an imminent crash and order him to immediately increase altitude, change course ... whatever was necessary. The captain wouldn't argue that his or her instruments said everything was fine; the airliner would change course at once and sort out the question of instrument accuracy after it was out of harm's way.

But traffic regulators on the bay operate under different rules. Even a minor course change would have prevented the accident — but according to VTS rules posted on the Web, the Coast Guard has no authority (other than in times of national-security alerts) to directly order preventative action. Under centuries-old rules of the sea, the captain of a ship is in total control and can't be told what to do, even if a disaster is looming — and modern safety regulations haven't caught up to that tradition.

The ship was sailing under terrible conditions, with almost zero visibility, and even some bay captains say running a 70,000-ton vessel in an area like this in fog that thick is a bad idea. But the shipping companies have so much money on the line that nobody wants to slow down the schedules.

It's no secret where the fuel tanks are in a ship like this. The moment the ship took a gash that size in the hull, the authorities should have assumed that a sizable and extremely dangerous spill was in the works and begun immediate emergency containment procedures.