San Jose Mercury News


By Paul Rogers
San Jose Mercury News

Thursday, February 19, 2004

On a blustery March night nine years ago, the Mundogas Europe, a Liberian tanker loaded with 36 million pounds of deadly chemicals, lost its steering and drifted toward the Golden Gate Bridge and a potentially catastrophic collision.

The ship’s cargo of pressurized anhydrous ammonia—a highly toxic chemical used to make fertilizer—could have forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people. With crew members screaming in the background, the ship’s pilot radioed the Coast Guard, desperately seeking a tugboat to guide the vessel.

None was nearby. The pilot threw out both anchors, slammed the engines in reverse, and the 561-foot ship shuddered to a halt 300 feet from the rocks at Fort Point.

In the nine years since, there have been at least 23 mishaps involving chemical ships in San Francisco Bay, a Mercury News review of Coast Guard databases found.

Yet today, there are still no rules to stop the next Mundogas Europe from colliding with a bridge, rocks or another ship, even though the number of chemical ships entering the bay has nearly tripled since 1995, to 171 last year.

The Bay Area remains at risk, some shipping experts say, because chemical ships are not required to have tugboat escorts. Oil tankers, by comparison, must be escorted by tugboats that can stop them if they lose power, lose steering or suffer a fire—a state law passed in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill.

“We know the consequences of something bad happening would be absolutely devastating to public health and the environment,” said Bob Bea, a former Shell tanker captain and professor of engineering at the University of California-Berkeley. “Call it hubris, commercial drive or whatever; it keeps us from doing anything. But we know better.”

While there have been no major spills, chemical ships—which carry pesticides, solvents, acids, explosives and other hazardous cargo into the bay several times a month—have lost steering, lost power and run aground, Coast Guard records show.

On Feb. 22, 2003, for example, the Cefalonia, a 569-foot Panamanian tanker loaded with 27,000 tons of ammonium nitrate, ran aground in the mud near Pittsburg. Timothy McVeigh used two tons of the same chemical, packed into a Ryder rental truck, to blow up the Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.

Such fertilizer ships typically unload at Stockton and Sacramento. For three days, the Cefalonia sat helpless until a rising tide and three tugboats pulled it free. The ship had run aground in nearly the same spot 13 months earlier.

“Anything that can go wrong on a boat will,” said Russell Long, a former America’s Cup captain who now is executive director of Bluewater Network, a San Francisco environmental group. “I’m afraid it will take a major maritime disaster to focus the public spotlight on this industry.”

To be sure, the Coast Guard has put in place safety measures for chemical ships, mainly to protect against terrorism.

Among them: Requiring ships to report cargoes and crew names 96 hours before arriving; flying armed marshals on helicopters to board the most hazardous ships while they enter the bay; and escorting some ships with a Coast Guard cutter.

“Nothing comes in until I am satisfied,” said Coast Guard Capt. Gerald Swanson, commander of the Port of San Francisco. “If there is anything out of the ordinary, we don’t allow the vessels into port.”

Under federal law, Swanson could order tugboat escorts for all chemical ships.

“In an ideal world, it would be good to have six tugs on every ship,” he said. “But that’s not practical. It’s not uniform with other ports. And we probably wouldn’t have any ships coming here if we did that.”

A tug escort into the bay can cost a shipper $8,000.

International treaties and state and federal laws make it difficult for one port to pass stricter safety rules than others. The shipping industry also has fought attempts by states to pass their own tanker safety laws, saying Congress should do it to ensure uniformity.

But a surprisingly broad number of Bay Area political leaders and shipping experts have joined environmentalists in calling for a new state law or tougher Coast Guard rules.

“If anhydrous ammonia got loose, it could wipe out thousands of people,” said Joan Lundstrom, a Larkspur city councilwoman and member of the San Francisco Harbor Safety Committee, a state task force of shipping and government officials.

Last year, Lundstrom led a state tug escort work group that decided not to recommend a new state law requiring the same tug rules for chemical ships as oil tankers.

The task force concluded it couldn’t draft a bill because the Coast Guard told panel members it doesn’t keep a database of which chemicals come into the bay, she said.

But the information is available from Customs.

“Sure, we could tell somebody how much ethyl-methyl-something came into San Francisco in a year. We keep track of all of it,” said Leo Morris, assistant director for field operations for Customs and Border Protection’s San Francisco office.

Lundstrom said the task force didn’t know about the Customs database.

In 1995, state Sen. Bruce McPherson, R-Santa Cruz, introduced a bill requiring tug escorts for chemical ships. That bill, AB 1742, defined “hazardous materials” as anything listed in Title 49, Part 172 of the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations—poison gas, flammable liquids, radioactive materials, explosives and other dangerous chemicals.

McPherson removed the language at the request of former Gov. Pete Wilson’s staff over fears of a lawsuit by the tanker industry, said Pete Bontadelli, Wilson’s former top oil-spill official.

Money is an issue, too. State oil spill rules are funded by a 5-cents-per-barrel tax. There is no such tax on chemicals. The world’s 2,000 chemical tanker ships are among the most modern and safest afloat, the shipping industry says. Most are double-hulled.

“The reason most people haven’t heard of them is because there really haven’t been any incidents in the U.S.,” said Margaret Doyle, a chemical ship expert with Intertanko in Washington, D.C.

While many experts agree, some say the consequences of a disaster are too great to risk.

“They said the Titanic was unsinkable,” said Michael Shaw, vice president of Interscan, a Los Angeles firm that makes gas-detection devices for NASA, Dow and ships. “The possibility of some catastrophic thing occurring may be small, but when it happens it will be bad enough that people won’t accept that we didn’t act.”