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A bridge too far? Reflections on the Dali disaster

Remnants of the Francis Scott Key Bridge. Photo from the Maryland Department of Transportation Flickr account.

By Erich Pica

The writer is president of Friends of the Earth U.S.

It’s been more than a month since the container ship Dali accident collapsed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, resulting in the loss of six lives and ongoing economic impacts to a broad region. The disaster continues to unfold as the ship remains entangled in the structure and serves as a potent reminder for several changes that need to be made to our questionable shipping practices.

There’s a well-known, unfortunate expression in the maritime industry that “regulations are written in blood.” It often takes a catastrophe to overcome the shipping industry’s political and economic influence. One of the first and most significant international maritime regulations that resulted in basic requirements like enough lifeboats for ships, the Safety of Life at Sea, was written in response to the loss of 1,517 lives aboard the Titanic in 1912.

As the world’s economy grew, so did the demand for oil and the size of oil tankers built to transport it. Like past regulation, commonsense international law requiring double hulls was written only after a series of significant oil spills and the associated catastrophic impacts on the environment — including the Exxon Valdez tanker, which released up to 31.7 million gallons of oil in Prince William Sound.

While cost-effective, in retrospect, these measures weren’t proactive and focus on a singular piece of an accident rather than the system itself. It’s rare that only one thing causes such calamities.

For the Dali disaster, we may have to wait years for the Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board to determine whether the economic and human losses were due to bad fuel (since the ship was likely using cheap, low-quality bunker fuel), a clogged filter, an electrical outage, human error, or some combination thereof.

There are already a variety of calls for a regulatory response, including the suggestion to do nothing until we have a definitive answer as to which widget to fix. Additionally, The Washington Post confirmed that rebuilding the bridge will cost up to $1.9 billion.

In addition to the economic clout of the global shipping industry, the Coast Guard has failed to conduct rigorous analysis of the accident data it collects. While some of the reasons may be due to inadequate resources to conduct thorough inspections, the Coast Guard also views its primary mission as addressing immediate challenges, be it deconflicting traffic or saving lives at sea.

Despite the Coast Guard’s Swiss army knife mission, it took The Washington Post less than a month to analyze three years’ worth of Coast Guard data to reveal that there have been 424 reported incidents of large ships losing power in U.S. waters, with 103 of them occurring near a port, bridge, or other infrastructure. A USA Today analysis found that over the past 22 years there were approximately 6,000 similar incidents with 900 of them occurring near bridges.

Oddly, only a dozen were deemed “significant.” The disparities of these accounts underscore the importance of the Coast Guard to provide analyses of its own data.

Whereas some have called for reinforcing bridge piers, other remedies seem more immediate and cost effective — for example, extending the length of time a tug escorts a ship until it is clear of critical infrastructure. However, there are currently no uniform national standards for the use of tug escorts. Escorts are an obvious strategy for avoiding collisions, as well as associated tragic losses of life and environmental harm. Given that it can cost over $20 thousand a day for a ship to wait for a berth, the additional cost of extending tug escorts is relatively inexpensive.

While we wait for the results of the investigations from this tragedy, it’s incumbent on the Biden administration and Congress to call on the Coast Guard to compel ship owners to require that tugs escort ships around our nation’s critical, aging infrastructure until new regulations are instituted. In addition, we must hold our institutions accountable for sound, accessible data analysis on incidents so root, systemic problems can be found and addressed.

The absence of national data analysis and escort requirements has led Friends of the Earth to proactively and successfully advocate for the expanded use of tugs in places like Washington State to protect the Puget Sound and all those dependent on it. Stronger, more effective shipping regulations are imperative for the sake of marine species, communities and the planet.


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A bridge too far? Reflections on the Dali disaster