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American Shipper

Bill seeks greater oversight of Bay Area harbor pilot board

Bill seeks greater oversight of Bay Area harbor pilot board

California's Senate unanimously passed a bill Friday designed to provide stricter oversight of a state board that licenses, monitors and investigates harbor pilots guiding ocean-going vessels into California's Bay Area ports.

   Senate Bill 1627, authored by State Sen. Pat Wiggins, D-Santa Rosa, passed by a 40-0 Senate floor vote and heads to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for a signature.

   'This is a good government bill that will provide oversight and accountability to the Board of Pilot Commissioners,' Wiggins said.

   SB1627, sponsored by numerous shipping industry and environmental organizations, was prompted by the November 2007 collision of the container vessel COSCO Busan with the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Traveling in heavy fog and under the guidance of a licensed-state pilot, the Busan impacted one of the bridge pilings, tearing a 160-foot gash in the vessel's fuel tanks. More than 50,000 gallons of bunker fuel spilled into the bay, resulting in millions of dollars in clean-up and impact costs. Dozens of beaches were closed, thousands of birds were killed and local fishermen were seriously impacted due to the spill.

   The harbor pilot on the bridge of the Busan at the time of the collision, Capt. John Cota, has been charged with federal felony charges stemming from the accident and resulting investigation. Civil cases against Cota regarding the incident are also pending.

   The state Board of Pilot Commissioners, a quasi-autonomous state board charged with licensing state harbor pilots for San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisan bays, was criticized following the accident for not taking more serious actions against Cota for a number of incidents prior to the Busan incident involving the pilot.

   The bill, which Schwarzenegger has until Sept. 30 to sign into law, was sponsored by the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and supported by California Trade Coalition, the Ocean Conservancy, San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, Baykeeper, and Save the Bay.

   'We are pleased that the legislature has unanimously endorsed this proposal to help improve navigational safety on the San Francisco Bay,' said Mike Jacobs of the PMSA. 'If the governor follows the Legislature’s lead on embracing this common sense reform of the state Pilot Commission, the state will now have independent auditors reviewing the commission’s operations and an agency secretary looking over their shoulders.'

   SB1627, if signed into law, would create state administrative oversight of the state Board of Pilot Commission by:

   ' Placing the Pilot Board under the authority of the state's Business, Transportation and Housing Agency.

   ' Requiring comprehensive financial and performance audits of the board, which have not been done.

   ' Providing new tools to the commission to ensure more comprehensive investigations of incidents involving state-licensed pilots.

   ' Detailing which records must be maintained by the board, including safety violations.

   The bill also provides annual funding of $350,000, to be collected from private fees levied on the maritime community, to pay for the costs of conducting the required annual state audit. ' Keith Higginbotham