Lawmakers push for change after Cosco Busan spill

February 15, 2012 9:03:47 PM PST
State lawmakers are now tackling problems in overseeing bar pilots -- the men and women who guide the massive ships through San Francisco Bay. This comes just two days after the ABC7 News I-Team uncovered recordings from the Cosco Busan, the ship that hit the Bay Bridge.

The Bureau of State Audits launched an investigation after the Cosco Busan oil spill in 2007, but two important changes have yet to be made in the oversight of bar pilots.

The mission of the Joint Sunset Review Committee is to identify waste and inefficiency in government agencies. Wednesday, they tackled the Board of Pilot Commissioners that oversees the 60 men and women who guide ships through San Francisco Bay and beyond. A state audit found the board "did not consistently follow state law when licensing pilots."

"Making sure that they consistently adhere to requirements in state law when licensing pilots and should establish and implement a procedure for approving and monitoring board appointed physicians," Elaine Howle, a spokesperson for the Bureau of State Audits, said.

The board of pilot commissioners began in 1890, but had its first legislative review because of John Cota hitting the Bay Bridge while piloting a container ship in 2007.

"I just hit the bridge...I'd like to call it a glancing blow, but there's definitely damage," Cota can be heard saying on ship audio recordings from that day.

The Cosco Busan container ship hit the Bay Bridge, with pilot John Cota at the helm, spilling 53,000 gallons of oil, killing wildlife and fouling Bay Area beaches.

The National Transportation Safety Board found Cota "did not disclose to the U.S. Coast Guard ... all of his medical conditions", and that one "probable cause" of the accident was "the pilot's degraded cognitive performance from his use of impairing prescription medication."

The board failed to catch Cota's medical conditions that would have disqualified him as a pilot.

Barbara Price, a member of the board's pilot fitness committee says they have a plan to tighten oversight.

"We feel that we put together a very comprehensive program that really changes the way that the pilot fitness will be overseen," Price said.

The audit also questioned why the Board of Pilot Commissioners approved flights in business class to France last year for the bar pilots, who make about $450,000 a year. They attended "manned model training," using scaled down versions of ships. The price tag for that training in France is $844,000 for two years. The audit recommends putting it out for a bid.

"Sitting up in what I like to call 'pretzel class,' in economy, guarantees that that pilot is going to be fatigued when he or she gets off the plane at the other end," Michael Miller, of the Board of Pilot Commissioners, said.

The pilots' association is pushing for a second pilot on the new, larger container ships to operate a portable GPS unit to help ensure a safe passage. But, the shipping companies aren't happy about paying an additional $26,000 -- what a pilot makes for a single run on one of the larger ships.

"We're happy to pay, because we're required to maintain safety on the bay, but what we're not required to pay is additional money just because they want it," Michael Jacob, spokesperson for Pacific Merchant Shipping Association said.


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