This oil spill -- and the next - Page 2

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

But somehow just about everyone seemed to believe the initial reports that the crew of the ship had transferred the fuel away from the hole and only a trivial amount had escaped.

Remember, we're talking about a rip of 100 feet, one-eighth the length of the ship, right in the part of the hull where half a million gallons of nasty bunker fuel were stored. Emergency responders should have known a spill was inevitable and gone into action right away.

Yet hours passed. No public warning was issued. Bay swimmers continued to take their morning natations — and some came back covered with oil. Nobody knew what was going on.

The day after the spill, when it was clear an ecological disaster was happening in the bay, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom split town and went on vacation.

So far, the taxpayers are picking up the tab for the cleanup — and in the end, it may prove difficult to get the owner of the ship to pay, even if faulty navigation equipment on the Cosco Busan was at least partly the cause of the spill. The companies that own these big ships use layers of dummy corporations, legal tricks, and secretive contracts to protect them from liability. In this case, the Chronicle has reported, the Cosco Busan is a Chinese vessel owned by either a company in Cyprus or one in Hong Kong and managed by a separate Hong Kong outfit. It's going to take years to get to the bottom of who should pay for this mess.

Meanwhile, the crab-fishing industry is out of business, and the economic impact will be dramatic.

There are obvious lessons here — and the first is that the public and all of the regulatory and response agencies at every level of government have to stop taking a nonchalant, hands-off attitude toward the ships that represent an ecological time bomb in the bay.

Shipping is part of the lifeblood of the local economy, and everyone who lives in the Bay Area has to live with the fact that giant steel vessels loaded with toxic fluids are going to be passing through a diverse and easily damaged ecosystem every day of every year for the foreseeable future. But there's a lot that can be done to make it safer.

For starters, the VTS ought to have the mandate and the authority to regulate shipping traffic in the same way that air traffic controllers regulate planes. Among other things, the service should keep ships in port when the fog is that thick and conditions aren't safe. Sen. Dianne Feinstein is mad about the spill response, and that's fine — but she and her Bay Area congressional colleagues ought to push for legislation that would allow the Coast Guard to ensure this doesn't happen again.

There's a desperate need for a bay spill early-warning system, something that could go into effect the moment there's a possibility of oil fouling the water — and get containment crews on hand quickly and let the public know the hazards. That's something the State Legislature should move on immediately.

Perhaps Congress should mandate that ships passing through US coastal waters post an accident bond to ensure they don't escape liability for disasters. But for now, the federal government needs to seize the Cosco Busan, impound its cargo, and make it clear that nothing is going anywhere until the bill for this catastrophe is settled.

And the state and federal governments need to compensate the crab fishers — and then collect the money from the ship's owners to cover those costs.