Safety first: Protecting San Francisco Bay and its economic promise

It’s easy to take for granted the beauty of the San Francisco Bay as well as the key role it plays to support Northern California’s economy. But the next time you’re crossing a bridge or traveling the shoreline, take a closer look.

All those cargo ships bustling in and out of port means commerce, jobs and prosperity.  But in the never-ending quest for more efficiency and higher profits, a new trend is emerging that poses hidden dangers, and greater risks to the economic and environmental well-being of the Bay.

Shipping companies, most of them foreign-owned, are turning to a new class of super-sized cargo ships. Known as Ultra Large Container Vessels, these ships are more than 1,100 feet long, a third longer than the height of the Transamerica Building.  There’s an obvious reason for these ships-on-steroids…revenue margin.  Some can carry more than 15,000 containers, representing millions of dollars in profit per ship. 

A single vessel means millions for shippers, but for the San Francisco Bar Pilots, maritime professionals charged with ensuring the safe passage in and out of port to protect the economy and environment, the Ultra Large Vessels present a major risk. The size of these ships makes it much more difficult to navigate the Bay’s channels safely. They are much more difficult to turn and maneuver as they approach their berths. In fact, the Port of Oakland was so concerned about safety that it commissioned a study in 2010, which found these ships can only be moved safely with two licensed Bar Pilots on board. One Pilot navigates the ship, while the second operates special electronic precision positioning equipment. The Board of Pilot Commissioners, a state body that regulates these services, is also on record in support of this safety enhancement.

The need for a second pilot was underscored during the arrival of an 1148’ ship called the CMA CGM Norma in June 2011.  After the Norma was turned and approaching the dock, its engines failed and the ship had to be towed to its berth just using the tug boats.  Without a second pilot aboard with the positioning equipment, it’s very likely there would’ve been a major accident. 

One would think that adding the second pilot is a no-brainer.  Without it, the risk increases for a completely avoidable mishap that would be costly and could result in permanent environmental damage.  Sadly, the big shipping companies are refusing to pay even a penny for the additional pilot.  Their lawyers are aggressively fighting a compromise where they would only be charged half the rate for an additional pilot and only for the Ultra Large Container Vessels.

The shippers make millions, but want the service for free. By contrast, the Bar Pilots have invested hundreds of hours of personnel time to verify the need and spent thousands of dollars to purchase the GPS equipment.  As has been our practice for the past 160 years, we will not cut corners or put the people of California at risk. However, the shippers don’t seem to care. Their lawyers are hiding behind a legislative statute that was enacted when a single pilot was sufficient to safely guide ships to port.  But the times, and the size of ships entering the Bay, have changed, and the law should too.

These are the largest ships to ever navigate San Francisco Bay, and people deserve to know that their bay is being protected. It is our hope that public interest and legislative action will put the safety of the Bay ahead of any other consideration.

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