Big Machine Safety Illusion

There is a pervasive view among Americans that the bigger the machine the safer it is. But, the safety of such huge things as ships and airplanes can be no more than an illusion sometimes. The recent disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 jet airliner is one example and another is a collision which occurred in the Houston Ship Channel at about 1:30 pm on Saturday, March 22nd. The Galveston Coast Guard station received a radio call at that time from the Captain of the 585-foot vessel Summer Wind advising that the vessel had just collided with a large barge carrying oil and the tug pushing it. Investigators were immediately dispatched and arriving on-scene, they discovered that the Kirby Inland Marine barge was being transported by the tug Miss Susan from Texas City to Bolivar and contained 924,000 gallons of heavy oil. As a result of collision damage, the barge was partially aground and had leaked roughly 160,000 into the Channel's waters. The tug's crew of six men were all accounted for and medically stable, although two were taken to an area hospital to be checked out after exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas. All vessel traffic in the Ship Channel has been suspended below buoy 32 and a massive clean-up operation and investigation into the collision's cause are underway.

Spills like these are an economic and environmental disaster. To get a handle on the scope of what's involved think of pouring a quart of motor oil all over the floor of your garage. Now, multiply that by 640,000, make the oil about four times as thick and sticky and add thousands of fish, shrimp, crabs, oysters and marine birds and a couple dozen square miles of beach sand, wetlands, marshes and shoreline and the human structures among them all. Gooey black oil will have to be removed from every inch of all that. And, the economics are just as enormous. The ferries between Bolivar and Galveston are suspended. Any vessels in port, including cruise ships, remain there and those waiting at anchorage off the coast can't get in. The Texas City dike and Pelican Island fishing sites are closed. Bait shops, tackle shops, local fishermen, oyster dredgers and shrimpers are idled or closed. The affected waters are closed to boating and swimming. And, all of this will continue until clean-up has progressed to the point that such activities won't spread the contamination or injure people.

How can such a calamity occur? So far the pretty lame explanation is "fog." Obviously there will be more to it than that, including equipment malfunctions or operator negligence or both. In the meantime, the rest of us and a serious chunk of nature pay the price. So, the big machines are only as safe as the people who run them make sure they are. When mistakes occur, safety goes out the window. Sheesh!