Three days after a 752-foot oil tanker sideswiped a tower of the Bay Bridge under foggy conditions, the top Coast Guard official in the Bay Area on Thursday called for a reconsideration of rules that allow large ships to sail in fog near the Bay Bridge.
The request by Capt. Cynthia Stowe to the San Francisco Bay Harbor Safety Committee follows a report Wednesday by the Bay Area News Group that the Coast Guard and other officials in 2008 exempted the Bay Bridge from a list of nine risky areas where ship captains are told not to sail when visibility is less than half a mile.
The Coast Guard has said that there was a quarter-mile of visibility when the Overseas Reymar hit the bridge Monday.
"She expressed her concern in finding out what happened, but in the meantime, it is one of the things she wanted to start right away, because it's the prudent thing to do," said Dan Dewell, a Coast Guard spokesman.
The committee, a 23-member state body that helps write rules for shipping safety on the bay, told its navigation working group to take up the issue in two weeks and report back with preliminary recommendations at the full committee's next meeting Feb. 14 in San Francisco.
On Nov. 7, 2007, the 901-foot cargo ship Cosco Busan, headed from Oakland to South Korea, hit the Bay Bridge's "Delta Tower" -- adjacent to the tower hit Monday -- in dense morning fog.
That accident ripped a 211-foot-long gash in the ship's hull and dumped 53,000 gallons of bunker fuel into the bay. The spill tainted 69 miles of shoreline, and killed about 6,800 birds. The local bar pilot who was guiding the ship, John Cota, 64, of Petaluma, pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal water pollution charges and served 10 months in jail.
After the spill, in March 2008, the harbor safety committee drew up a list of nine "critical maneuvering areas," including the San Mateo Bridge, Richmond-San Rafael Bridge and Oakland Inner Harbor, where large ships could not sail in heavy fog. But they left out the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge, over concerns that it would too severely limit commerce on the bay and might cause ships to back up outside the bay on foggy days.
"It's now been five years; we have had a second incident. I'm supportive of the idea of revisiting it and taking a fresh look at it," said Capt. Lynn Korwatch, chairwoman of the harbor safety committee.
One compromise may be to continue to allow ships to sail into the bay in heavy fog and park at areas known as "anchorage 8" and "anchorage 9" just south of the Bay Bridge where they often refuel, take on food for crews and prepare for further movements. But under that option, they would not be able to sail in heavy fog near the Bay Bridge if they were outbound, as the empty tanker Overseas Reymar was on Monday morning when it hit the bridge.
"It's a great step," said Deb Self, executive director of Baykeeper, an environmental group. "I've talked with a lot of people, from pilots to commercial captains to the Coast Guard, and everybody is very open to the idea of additional visibility restrictions around the Bay Bridge."
Meanwhile Thursday, investigators continued to comb the ship, interview its crew and check its instruments as it sat anchored off Treasure Island.
Rex Clack, the attorney representing the ship's pilot, Guy Kleess, 61, of San Francisco, issued a statement earlier this week suggesting the pilot wasn't to blame.
"There are many potential causes for investigators to study,'' he said, "such as mechanical failure aboard the Overseas Reymar, faulty navigational devices, unpredictable fog conditions, the actions of the ship's bridge crew, water currents and tides, and other possible sources."
On Tuesday, the Coast Guard sent out a notice to mariners that one of the three radar beacons on the Bay Bridge, known as "Racon B" was not working. The beacon, which is operated by Caltrans, alerts sailors to the position of the bridge.
"The fact that one of them is out should not cause irreparable damage in my opinion," said Korwatch, a former ship's captain who was general manager of marine operations at Matson Navigation. "There is enough redundancy on the ship, as well as other objects visible on the radar, that should one go out, that shouldn't be the only navigation tool."
According to Coast Guard records, a fog horn on the bridge also had not been working for months.
The Coast Guard's Dewell said that having the radar beacon or foghorn malfunction wouldn't leave sailors without any tools, however.
"Every aid is important but there are many different kinds of aids and other navigation tools that you need to use -- your radar on the ship itself, your GPS, your electronic charting system, your lookouts, your radio," he said. "You need to use all of those."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.