Ships fail test for spill alerts; many unable to notify authorities quickly
- State law requires all ships entering California waters to make four calls within 30 minutes of a spill: to the state Office of Emergency Services, the ship's owner or representative, its spill-cleanup contractor, and a national spill reporting agency.____________________________________________________
Ships fail test for spill alerts
Many vessels unable to notify authorities quickly after an incident, state inspectors find.
By Matt Weiser
Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, March 23, 2008
Story appeared in MAIN NEWS section, Page A1
A large number of cargo ships visiting California ports may be unable to perform an important task after an oil spill: phoning critical agencies and emergency teams within 30 minutes.
In public records obtained by The Bee, 21 of 164 ships subjected to spot state inspection in a three-year period could not place four notification phone calls, as required by state law. Often the ship's crew failed to locate the phone numbers or didn't understand the task.
Critics said the failure rate highlights the need for more rigorous inspections. And by testing just 164 ships over a three-year period, state inspectors only scratched the surface of an estimated 7,400 ships worldwide required to follow California law, according to industry watchdog groups.The deficiency was illustrated Nov. 7, when the Cosco Busan container ship rammed the Bay Bridge, spilling 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. The ship's crew failed to make the vital phone calls in time, among the reasons the spill grew so large.
State law requires all ships entering California waters to make four calls within 30 minutes of a spill: to the state Office of Emergency Services, the ship's owner or representative, its spill-cleanup contractor, and a national spill reporting agency.
The calls are vital because it's up to independent cleanup contractors to respond to spills. State officials have no significant cleanup ability of their own. If contractors aren't notified promptly, environmental damage might snowball.
Records held by the state Office of Spill Prevention and Response show that 16 out of 65 ships tested in 2005 were unable to make those calls in time. In 2006, three out of 17 failed, while last year two out of 82 failed.
"This is about making a phone call. Nobody should be failing that basic test," said Linda Sheehan, executive director of the California Coastkeeper Alliance and member of a technical committee that advises the state on spill response. "This really calls into question whether or not they can respond in a timely manner to the spill itself."
There are no fines for failing this test, and state officials said they were unaware of the failure rate. But Ted Mar, chief of the marine safety branch at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response, said the drop in failures since 2005 suggests the inspection program is working.
"We've had a goal of increasing our unannounced drills by 5 percent annually," said Mar. "If we've had less failures in 2007, that's a goal that we've met."
Critics said, however, that the inspection program has been inadequate. The number of ships tested each year is erratic, and the drop in failures may not represent improvement because different ships are inspected each year, not the same group.
"There shouldn't have been this kind of significant failure rate," said Ted Lempert, a former Palo Alto assemblyman who co-wrote the state law that established the four-call rule. "Clearly this kind of evidence is showing that the implementation of this law was highly deficient."
In both 2005 and 2006, California experienced about 7,300 hazardous material spills, according to state records. About half in each year were petroleum spills, and most were small. Figures for 2007 were not available.
The Bee first sought records on the Cosco Busan and its cleanup contractors immediately after the spill. But the Office of Spill Prevention and Response refused, saying the records were part of an "ongoing investigation."
The records were made available after the newspaper filed a Public Records Act request. The Bee requested five years of records, but only three years of results were provided.
Crews are required to keep the key phone numbers posted on the ship's bridge. But the records show that some crews couldn't locate the phone numbers within 30 minutes. In some cases, inspectors gave the crew a passing grade even though they took more than 30 minutes.
Officials said inspectors sometimes give passing marks if a crew comes close to the 30-minute mark, because real-life spill conditions are chaotic.
The agency recently hired seven people for a new drills and inspections branch, tapping part of a $17 million budget surplus at the agency money Sheehan complained should have already been put to use preventing spills.
The 1990 Lempert-Keene Act established the Office of Spill Prevention and Response and set standards for the shipping industry and cleanup contractors. Amendments in 2001 gave the agency new inspection authority.
But there have been problems maintaining testing standards.
It was nearly impossible, for instance, to determine from agency records whether cleanup contractors passed inspection standards, established to ensure they deploy enough people and equipment just after a spill.
The agency can perform annual, unannounced drills on every cleanup contractor to test response capabilities, but has never done so. Contractors are drilled only when they apply for license renewals, every three years.
Records of these drills were in disarray, often consisting of illegible handwritten notes. Agency forms to document the drill were frequently incomplete. There was no follow-up report evaluating the contractor's performance, as required by law.
Instead, officials said they evaluated the contractor by meeting informally after the drill and comparing notes.
"The point here is that (a form) was developed, and we need to use it," acknowledged Chris Klummp, supervisor of the agency's readiness unit. "We need to check all the boxes and write the times in there."
The Cosco Busan's cleanup contractors didn't wait for a call from the ship. They responded on their own after learning of the spill by other means. But the team didn't know where the ship was and initially missed the bulk of the spill, Sheehan said.
Once on the scene, their response may have been hindered by a failure to accurately estimate the spill's size in a timely manner. This made it difficult to deploy enough equipment and know where to send it.
Roy Mathur, the state's expert in this very technical task, arrived at the scene 75 minutes after the spill. But it took him nearly three hours to board the Cosco Busan because his own agency didn't provide a boat, and the Coast Guard didn't follow through with a promised ride.
"He went out on the sandwich boat literally the boat that took the sandwiches out to the ship," Sheehan said.
Mathur then waited 90 minutes for a ride back to Yerba Buena Island to deliver his spill estimate, which was 400 times larger than the Coast Guard's erroneous estimate that morning.
Steve Edinger, assistant chief of enforcement at the spill agency, said its own vessel in Benicia was not dispatched because it would have taken too long to arrive.
The agency had no other boats closer.
"That will not happen again," Edinger said, noting his agency will soon have a new boat stationed in San Francisco Bay.
Even the oil industry was mortified by the improvised use of the sandwich boat.
"If the issue is solely not having a boat to take, that's unacceptable," said Matt Rezvani, spokesman for BP America Inc., and member of the agency's spill-advisory committee.
On the day of the Cosco Busan spill, incident commanders refused help from San Francisco police and fire departments, which had boats on the water.
This happened, in part, because the state agency had no trained personnel available to coordinate with local agencies.
"It was one of the issues during the event that we saw needs to be strengthened, and that's what we're doing now," Edinger said.
The agency's inspection records were more useful in revealing its own shortcomings than those of the cleanup contractors. For example, during a 2007 licensing drill for one cleanup contractor, an observer said inspectors had trouble evaluating the contractor's performance because the agency didn't have personnel in the right places.
Inspectors, he wrote, seemed to rely on the contractor to report how much equipment was deployed.
"Having an (agency) boat on the water during an unannounced drill would help verify equipment, type, how much, and personnel," the observer wrote. "I felt (the contractor) was counting boats and personnel several times over."
This timeline of the Cosco Busan spill shows how fast things can happen after an oil spill and why acting in the first half-hour is important. The Nov. 7 spill put 53,569 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay. Here are the first 90 minutes:
8:30 a.m.: Harbor pilot Capt. John Cota, guiding the 900-foot Cosco Busan out of port, notifies vessel traffic service that the ship "touched" a Bay Bridge pier.
8:37: Spill first reported by president of Bar Pilots Association; details scant.
8:54: Cota calls U.S. Coast Guard, reports ship discharging fuel.
8:55: New pilot boards Cosco Busan, replacing Cota.
9 a.m.: Deadline under state law for ship's crew to place four phone calls reporting spill.
9:03: Coast Guard vessel under way to the ship carrying its own spill investigator.
9:05: First cleanup contractor learns of accident from a third party.
9:10: Contractor dispatches first two cleanup vessels; San Francisco Fire Department calls Coast Guard to offer aid, is turned away.
9:15: Cosco Busan crew makes first required phone call about spill, to its owner-representative.
9:17: Replacement pilot calls second cleanup contractor, leaves message.
9:18: Second contractor calls back, is told spill is about 400 gallons.
9:23: Pilot reports ship is no longer leaking fuel.
9:30: First contractor on scene. Reports heavy fog but finds no oil.
9:35: Contractor smells oil and reports "heavy sheen" on water.
9:42: State Office of Emergency Services notified of spill by ship's owner-representative.
9:45: State oil spill expert arrives at Yerba Buena Island command center, begins three-hour wait to board Cosco Busan.
9:50: Coast Guard pollution investigator boards Cosco Busan.
10 a.m.: Contractor gets approval to begin skimming oil.
Source: U.S. Coast Guard Incident Specific Preparedness Review committee report, Jan. 11