As the U.S. Coast Guard desperately tries to spin away its responsibility in a shipping accident that dumped 58,000 gallons of oil into the bay and could cost taxpayers more than $200 million to clean up, there is potential on the horizon for a much bigger disaster. The San Francisco Bay is on the verge of being slammed with large-ship traffic and the Coast Guard is not only unprepared for the coming onslaught, the agency also seems to be only vaguely aware of it.
In the next 10 years, local ports and commuter services will nearly double their operations. That means the bay's treacherous waters will become a confusing maze of crisscrossing shipping lanes and ferry routes jammed with vessels. It also means a greatly increased potential for shipping accidents that could threaten public safety, the region's economy, and the environment.
The Coast Guard's inadequate performance before and after the Cosco Busan accident earlier this month has environmental watchdog groups extremely nervous about the dramatic increase in shipping congestion on the bay. They have good reason to worry: The Coast Guard and the California Department of Fish and Game have done no assessments of accident potential, nor have they prepared a plan to manage ship traffic, environmentalists say. In fact, Sean Kelley, the civilian director of the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service (whose operators watched mutely as the 65,000-ton Cosco Busan sped into the Bay Bridge), told the SF Weekly that large-ship traffic on the bay is on the decline.
But according to the U.S Department of Transportation, large-vessel traffic of all kinds has been steadily increasing on the bay for years, and Bay Area ports are now scrambling to prepare for a dramatic rise in imports. A 2005 study by the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency predicted that exports from the Pacific Rim to the United States would triple by 2010. A good portion of that increase is steaming toward the San Francisco Bay.
The Port of Oakland, already the fourth busiest container port in the country, is in the midst of a massive expansion that will increase its capacity from 2.4 million containers a year to 4 million by 2016 to accommodate the flood of cheap imports.
"The consumers in the United States like affordable goods, and as long as consumer demand continues to grow, there will be a need to find a way to bring those products to American markets," says Port of Oakland spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur.
Meanwhile, in Richmond, Eagle Rock Aggregates has just finished building a $25 million, 95,000-square-foot facility to handle shiploads of sand and gravel from British Columbia, and the Port of Richmond is on the verge of signing a deal with Honda to ship 150,000 automobiles a year. On the Carquinez Strait, Benicia has signed a similar deal with Toyota. Further east, the city of Pittsburg is planning an estimated $100 million expansion of its natural deep-water port, which could as much as triple ship traffic to the town of 60,000.
There are also increases expected in the number of cruise ships, oil tankers, and dry bulk cargo ships on the bay. Adding to the navigational confusion, the San Francisco Water Transit Authority is planning to add 31 new ferries to its fleet and to double the number of bay terminals. Ferries already account for 77 percent of the daily traffic on the bay.
Baykeeper, a nonprofit environmental watchdog, is alarmed at the lack of preparation by the Coast Guard — which is charged with ensuring safety on the bay — particularly when current safety conditions are poorly enforced.
Retired Coast Guard Captain Geoff Potter, a Baykeeper volunteer who has tracked container ship speeds on the bay for the last two years, has made a disturbing discovery. As many as 10 percent of the 3,500 large ships that enter the bay each year exceed the Coast Guard's 15-knot limit, and 10 percent of those are traveling at 19 to 20 knots, which is reckless given the sluggish response time of the large ships and the bay's notoriously difficult waters.
"Certainly if there's an increase in the number of ships, you are going to increase the number of opportunities for a major accident because the bay is so tough to navigate," Baykeeper spokeswoman Sejal Choksi said. "Without an overall plan for ship-traffic growth, you're just doing it willy-nilly, which is just asking for trouble."
Coast Guard Captain John Bingaman said there may not be any comprehensive studies of ship-traffic increases, but that doesn't mean safety is not being monitored. "It's kind of a progressive thing," he says. "It's hard to know how to manage something until you have some reality associated with it. It could be that container ships will be built larger, as many of them are now, to handle more containers, which will mean fewer ships. Besides, I haven't seen anything that says the bay has reached its traffic capacity and that there's a need to be concerned."
Somehow, we don't feel reassured.