Broken Shipping Beacon Threatens the Bay

UPDATE – Feb 17, 2015

We received word late this morning that Caltrans has received and installed a replacement beacon from the manufacturer, over two weeks after the San Jose Mercury News article which brought this issue to the region’s attention.  According to a Caltrans email, “The Coast Guard has confirmed that the [radar beacon] is operating normally.”  — Patrick Band, Campaign Manager

A radar beacon slung below the western span of the Bay Bridge, which helps guide oil tankers and other ships safely between the bridge’s towers, is broken.  It’s been that way since before the Christmas holiday. And Caltrans, the agency responsible for keeping the beacon in working order, does not appear to have a timeline for when this critical element of the Bay’s marine safety system will be fixed.

Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc.  For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.
Above, the faulty beacon, as shown on the website of Texas-based Automatic Power, Inc. For nearly two months, this important navigational aid for oil tankers and other marine traffic in the Bay, has been broken.

This disturbing story broke late last week, thanks to reporting by Paul Rogers of the San Jose Mercury News.  You can read his full article online here.

When the U.S. Coast Guard notified Caltrans of the inoperative beacon in mid-December, work crews deployed a backup beacon. It wasn’t working right either, nor was the next one, or the next.  As of last week, Coast Guard records listed the beacon as “inoperable.”

Meanwhile, ships continue to pass under the Bay Bridge, putting their crews, cargo, and the Bay itself at risk.

Sadly, this is in no way a one-time technology glitch. When the tanker ship Overseas Reymar struck one of the bridge towers in January of 2013, a key beacon was out, influencing the pilot’s decision to change course at the last minute.  What could have been a Bay-wide catastrophe on the scale of the Cosco Busan wreck in 2007 was avoided purely by chance, because the tanker was not carrying oil at the time.

We’ve been shown repeatedly that containing spills once they occur is nearly impossible, and the repercussions of environmental damage can be felt for decades.  Preventing spills from occurring is the most responsible course of action.  Caltrans must ensure that critical marine navigation aids like the Bay Bridge beacons are fixed immediately, and the U.S. Coast Guard should evaluate the risks associated with allowing shipping traffic to continue under the bridge during periods of poor visibility if a beacon is out of service.