After the cargo ship Cosco Busan sailed through heavy fog and hit a tower of the Bay Bridge five years ago, spilling 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel, the Coast Guard and shipping officials wrote new rules to limit large ships from sailing in risky areas of San Francisco Bay when visibility is less than a half mile.
But they left out one key risk: the Bay Bridge itself.
On Tuesday, those rules came under scrutiny as questions swirled around whether the pilot of the Overseas Reymar, a 752-foot-long oil tanker that collided with a Bay Bridge tower a day before, had sailed in fog that was too dense, potentially putting the ship, the bridge and the bay at risk.
Capt. Peter McIsaac, president of San Francisco Bar Pilots, said he and Coast Guard officials helped craft the fog rules in 2008. The Bay Bridge was deliberately not included among the areas to be avoided in fog, he said, because foggy conditions are so common in San Francisco Bay that limiting sailing near the Bay Bridge would bring commerce to a near halt.
"Due to the summer fog patterns, that could shut down all the ports in the bay for a long period of time," McIsaac said.
Oil tankers, large cargo ships and other vessels regularly park at an area called "Anchorage 9" just south of Yerba Buena Island -- visible to baseball fans from the stands at the Giants' AT&T Park -- where the vessels are refueled, inspected and loaded with food for crews. If inbound ships in fog can't sail under the Bay Bridge to get to Anchorage 9, "you could end up with six or eight ships out there turning donuts off the Marin Coast, and that wouldn't be safe," McIsaac added.
Environmentalists and a prominent shipping industry group, however, say the rules need to be rewritten.
"The Bay Bridge should be included," said Deb Self, executive director of Baykeeper, an environmental group. "It seems like a mistake that it wasn't."
Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday announced it will open an investigation into Monday's accident, which the Coast Guard classified as "a major marine casualty" because it caused more than $500,000 in property damage to the ship and wooden fenders around the Bay Bridge tower. The ship, which was empty, did not spill any oil, having unloaded its cargo the night before at the Shell refinery in Martinez.
The pilot, Guy Kleess, 61, of San Francisco, passed an alcohol test, said Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell. Coast guard investigators interviewed Kleess on Tuesday morning and will work with the NTSB.
"In general, it's great that the fender system worked and that minimized damage to the bridge and probably to the ship as well," Dewell said. "But it's never good when you have an accident like this. Ships aren't supposed to hit the bridge. We are very concerned."
Dewell said he didn't know the status of the Overseas Reymar's captain or Philippines-based crew, but said Coast Guard officials warned the ship by radio before the accident that it was in danger.
As the Bay Area News Group reported Monday, Kleess, a former Exxon oil tanker captain, has been a pilot on the bay since 2005 and has had three accidents since 2009.
On Tuesday, the top state official regulating bay shipping pilots characterized the accidents as minor. "In one of them he was supervising a trainee, but he is on the hook for it. Nobody was injured in any of them, and there was no damage to the ship in any of the three, other than scraped paint on a tug boat," said Capt. Allen Garfinkle, executive director of the state Board of Pilot Commissioners.
Pilots are local mariners who board large ships before they enter the bay. They help ship captains maneuver and provide expert advice about local conditions.
According to state records, Kleess' mishaps were:
In regard to Monday's accident, McIsaac of the bar pilots' association said he has talked to Kleess, who told him he had at least half a mile of visibility when he set off sailing under the bridge. "My understanding is that he had visibility when he got under way, or enough visibility, but it socked in while he was under way," McIsaac said. "And we had a strong ebb current under the bridge."
The Coast Guard said Monday that during the time of the accident, visibility was a quarter mile.
After the 2007 Cosco Busan spill, which federal investigators said was caused in part by a pilot sailing in dense fog, McIsaac and Coast Guard officials came up with a list of nine areas where large ships should not sail when visibility is less than half a mile. These "critical maneuvering areas" include the San Mateo Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and Oakland Inner Harbor.
The guidelines, which the Coast Guard's Dewell said his agency uses to give orders to ships, were approved by the San Francisco Bay Harbor Safety Committee, a 23-member state advisory board, in March 2008.
One industry official said Tuesday that the rules should be re-evaluated, possibly to allow ships coming into the bay to sail to Anchorage 9 under the Bay Bridge, but not to sail out of the bay in heavy fog from Anchorage 9 under the bridge, as the Overseas Reymar did.
"It is a little surprising to be honest with you," said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, of the decision to leave the Bay Bridge out of the fog rules. "The harbor safety committee does defer a lot to the Coast Guard and the pilots."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.