SAN FRANCISCO -- A 752-foot oil tanker sailing in the fog collided with a tower of the Bay Bridge on Monday morning, spilling no oil but raising alarming new questions about oil tanker safety in San Francisco Bay.
The ship, the Overseas Reymar, based in the Marshall Islands, had unloaded its oil at the Shell refinery in Martinez only hours before it grazed the "Echo Tower" of the Bay Bridge at 11:18 a.m., between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco. Although it was carrying thousands of gallons of bunker fuel, authorities said it appeared none of that spilled.
"We're still keeping an eye out to make sure," said Coast Guard Petty Officer Barry Bena. "But as of right now, initial reports from the pilot, the Coast Guard and local agencies show no pollution has hit the water."
The pilot of the ship was identified as Guy Kleess, 61, of San Francisco, a former Exxon oil tanker captain who has been involved in at least three other shipping accidents since 2009.
The incident provided a stark reminder of a similar Bay Bridge collision five years ago, when the Cosco Busan, a 901-foot-long cargo ship, hit the adjacent tower of the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the bay, fouling 69 miles of shoreline and killing thousands of birds.
That an oil tanker similar in size to the Exxon Valdez, with the capacity to haul millions of gallons of heavy crude oil, hit a bridge in San Francisco Bay alarmed environmentalists.
"With a quarter-mile of visibility, they probably should not have been transiting the bay. This was a close call," said Deb Self, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper, an environmental group. "The ship's capacity is 505,000 barrels of oil. Luckily, it was empty. Or we could have had a real disaster."
Biologists for years have said that if a large oil tanker spills in the bay, the currents could carry much of it southward, where it would devastate egrets, herons, harbor seals, salmon and other species in the marshes and wetlands. Because of the weak tidal action in the southern part of the bay, the oil would take months, if not years, to remove.
According to state records, Kleess has been a pilot guiding large ships on the bay since 2005. He graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in 1976, and after that worked for Exxon as a third mate, second mate, first mate and captain on oil tankers until February 1989. Exxon became infamous on March 24, 1989, when its tanker Valdez hit a reef, spilling 11 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound, Alaska. State officials said that Kleess, who worked in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mexico in the 1990s, has not caused significant accidents in the past.
"Capt. Kleess has a good record. He's had no major incidents," said Capt. Allen Garfinkle, executive director of the State Board of Pilot Commissioners.
State records show that over three days in 2009 Kleess ran aground a 550-foot cargo ship in the Sacramento shipping channel and crashed a 600-foot cargo ship into a catwalk near Stockton. In 2010, he also was found at fault when a tugboat he was sailing ran aground in the Richmond inner harbor.
Pilots are local mariners who board oil tankers, freighters and other large ships before they enter San Francisco Bay. They help ship captains maneuver and provide expert advice about local conditions. Because of the high level of risk -- a major oil spill could cost a billion dollars and destroy wildlife and tourism -- shipping companies are required under state law to pay pilots.
Among the key questions Monday: Why was the ship sailing in significant fog? After the Cosco Busan spill in 2007, the Coast Guard put in place rules limiting large ships from sailing when there is less than half a mile of visibility. Coast Guard officials said Monday that the visibility was a quarter-mile at the time of the accident.
Also, did Coast Guard officials who track ships on radar warn the vessel it was about to hit the bridge tower?
And why did the ship or its contracted emergency response crews not deploy boom -- floating barriers that protect against oil spills -- until hours after the accident?
Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Shawn Lansing said the ship, which was built in 2004, had a double hull, which is required under a federal law signed by President George H.W. Bush after the Valdez spill. At a news conference Monday afternoon, Lansing said investigators don't yet know the cause of the crash but are looking at human error as a possibility.
Bart Ney, a spokesman for Caltrans, said about 30 to 40 feet of the wooden and metal fender on the bridge tower was damaged, but the bridge suffered no structural damage, and traffic wasn't disrupted.
Capt. Peter McIsaac, president of the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, said his organization tested the pilot on board for drugs and alcohol after the accident.
"He passed his alcohol test, but we don't get the drug test results back for a couple of days," McIsaac said.
Kleess is scheduled to be interviewed by the Coast Guard on Tuesday.
McIsaac said it appears the ship, with a crew of about 20, had offloaded its oil and sailed under the Bay Bridge to wait at an area called Anchorage 9 to refuel and take on food before heading out to sea. Its itinerary shows it was heading for Esmeraldas, Ecuador, a major coastal oil refining city. As the ship sailed toward the ocean, it clipped the Bay Bridge.
"There was an ebb tide and limited visibility," McIsaac said.
John Cota, 64, of Petaluma, the local bar pilot who was guiding the Cosco Busan five years ago, pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal water pollution charges and served 10 months in jail. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that the spill happened because Cota was impaired after taking Darvon, Vicodin, Zoloft and other medications for sleep apnea and other ailments, and that he should not have sailed in the heavy fog. The NTSB also concluded there was poor communication between Cota and the Chinese captain.
In September 2011, state and federal authorities announced a $44.4 million settlement with the Cosco Busan's owner, Regal Stone Ltd., and its operator, Fleet Management Ltd., both based in Hong Kong.