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The COSCO Busan oil spill - an avoidable disaster


By RADM Paul J. Pluta, USCG (ret.)


On 7 November 2007 at 8:27 a.m., in a heavy fog in San Francisco Bay, the 900 foot long container ship COSCO Busan struck the tower supporting the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The allision resulted in a 230 foot long by 14 foot wide gash in the COSCO Busan’s hull, breaching several forward bunker tanks and releasing an estimated 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel into San Francisco Bay. This incident set off a chain of events which resulted in both immediate and long term impacts to the entire maritime community.

The San Francisco Bar Pilot boarded the vessel at 6:00 a.m. The heavy fog conditions delayed the vessel’s departure for 90 minutes. During the delay, the pilot complained about the vessel’s radar units, noting clutter on the display and an inability to automatically acquire targets. After manual adjustments to the radar units and a local lifting of the fog, the Pilot and Master agreed to get underway with a lookout posted on the bow. While underway at 11 knots, the vessel again came into the heavy fog and the pilot reported that the radar picture was distorted and unreliable. [Post-incident investigations, however, have revealed no problems with the instruments, but point to human error and communication problems.] The Pilot asked the Master to interpret the symbols on the vessel’s electronic chart display and information system (ECDIS) to determine where the centre of the 2,210 foot span was located. The Master pointed to what he thought was the centre of the span. What the Master interpreted to be the centre of the span turned out to be the tower. The US Coast Guard Vessel Traffic System contacted the Pilot by radio to inform him that he was off course and to ask his intentions. The Pilot responded that the vessel’s instruments showed he was on the correct heading and he intended to pass through the centre of the span. Shortly thereafter, the bow lookout called the bridge with an urgent warning that the vessel was about to strike the bridge. The Pilot ordered hard rudder to turn the vessel, but it was too late to avoid the allision.

This incident set off a response which could easily exceed USD 100 million in cost and stimulate associated governmental and private sector actions which are likely to have long term ramifications on the entire industry. The anti-pollution culture of California, rooted in protecting pristine natural resources and exercising freedom of speech and state jurisdiction, is well known among the global maritime community. Consequently, it would have been hard to find a worse place for this unfortunate incident to happen. Countless beaches were fouled, some still undergoing cleanup. Thousands of birds were killed and oiled, attracting hundreds of volunteers and professional staff. Fishing and crabbing seasons were halted, affecting the livelihoods of countless watermen. Scores of recreational boats were oiled, resulting in countless cleanup claims. And the local economy, largely dependent upon tourism, was directly affected. The US and international media have focused broad attention on the incident and, once again, the maritime industry is portrayed in the negative.

As a result of these incident impacts, numerous investigations have been initiated. The US Coast Guard is conducting a marine casualty investigation, aimed at determining the cause of the casualty and recommending any follow on action of a civil or criminal nature, as well as any legislative or regulatory changes to prevent recurrence of this type of incident. The Coast Guard is also conducting an Incident Specific Preparedness Review, in concert with federal, state, local, and industry stakeholders, to examine the implementation of the associated plans and to evaluate the effectiveness of the Coast Guard’s response. The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting an independent investigation of the incident to determine the underlying causes and to evaluate the Coast Guard’s qualifications, readiness, and standard operating procedures. The Department of Justice is looking into criminal proceedings and the Congress of the United States is calling for an independent investigation by the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security. Litigation has also been initiated by the Federal Government against the Pilot and the Owners of the vessel for violation of at least three US laws and by the City of San Francisco, also against the Pilot and owners of the vessel, for negligence, seeking compensation and penalties. Obviously, the issues of liability and insurance are also in the forefront, and the ship has been arrested. A US Senator from California has also introduced legislation to increase the limits of liability for cargo ships, increase the Coast Guard’s authority to direct maritime traffic, and to fund improvements in the Vessel Traffic System. The California State Board of Commissioners has suspended the Pilot’s state license, and the Coast Guard has requested that the Pilot surrender his federal license. The supply chains for all the containers on board the vessel were clearly disrupted. The vessel is undergoing repairs at a local shipyard, but potential pollution concerns remain and will likely require that the vessel be dry-docked and cleaned.

Nearly every aspect of the public and private response to this incident has been publicly criticized. One week into the incident, the senior Coast Guard official in charge was relieved as Incident Commander and, shortly thereafter, announced his retirement. He has been accused of grossly under reporting the size of the spill, delaying public notification of the incident, refusing to involve the public in crisis planning, mishandling the required drug and alcohol testing of the vessel’s crew, and failing to properly co-ordinate the federal, state, local, and industry response. A Unified Command of government agencies was established, including the US Coast Guard, the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Sanctuaries, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

For more detailed information on the incident, the Unified Command website can be found at http://www.piersystem.com/go/site/1641/. The Coast Guard was also accused of turning away potential public and private responders. The City of
San Francisco has criticized its own response organizations for failing to properly contain the spill. The industry response has also been criticized as too little, too late.

As a result of the incident and the perceived overall failure of the associated response, the global maritime community can expect to see the following relevant issues and, perhaps, others discussed and some acted upon in the foreseeable future:

§       Double hulls for cargo vessels;

§       Tug escorts required in California waters;

§        Bunker fuels banned from use;

§        Compensation - limits of liability raised;

§        Vessel Traffic System authority increased to direct marine traffic;

§       Bridge Team Management - language, culture barriers; equipment skills;

§       Industry pollution responders more closely regulated and monitored.

So much more can be said about the various aspects of this incident, but space does not permit more than a summary. BIMCO members will have a rich list of lessons learned to reflect upon. In an effort to highlight some key issues and at the risk of leaving behind other, more pertinent ones, I think the following points should be among those given serious attention:

       1.     Priorities - Especially in the liner business, time is money and keeping to schedule is an imperative. However, nothing is absolute, i.e., the cost associated with the loss of underway hours and their impact on the overall schedule should be weighed against the much greater costs of the consequences of potential outcomes brought on by assuming the risk of getting underway, e.g., in poor weather conditions.

       2.     Clarity - The Master must clearly know his role and responsibility with respect to the Pilots imposed on his navigational team and must establish rules of engagement between them. He must ensure that each member of his bridge team is qualified to operate all necessary equipment and empowered to speak up, especially when something is amiss. He must ensure that no language or cultural barriers exist to the proper functioning of his bridge team.

       3.      Vessel Response Plan - The vessel owner must ensure through due diligence that the industry responders identified in the Plan are credible, available, and qualified to perform in the case of a marine casualty. The owner should ensure that the contractor has kept all required response equipment functional. The Master should know what level of performance to expect and should demand that it be provided properly.

I recognize that today’s shipboard mariners are overwhelmed by the range of additional responsibilities, perhaps, not shouldered by their predecessors. However, when considering the ramifications of deferring these responsibilities, it is clear to me that the cost of compliance will be much less than the cost of the consequences of failure. One need only to look at what costs have already been and will likely be borne by the global maritime community as a result of this incident to make the point.

Editor’s Note: Paul Pluta is BIMCO’s US Liaison Officer

                                                          (Bimco online 18 Dec 2007)



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