Human Error, Nautical Tragedy

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - February 18, 2009
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Full damage to marine life caused by the grounded Navy cruiser Port Royal remains to be seen

The recent grounding of the USS Port Royal off the airport’s reef runway reminds us of a sobering fact. Despite billions of dollars in world-class equipment and technology, we are still subject to a variable that cannot be measured or predicted - human error.

On those occasions we falter, the very vessels assigned to protect our precious ocean can cause harm.

On the evening of Feb. 6, the 9,600-ton Port Royal ran aground in 20 feet of water about a half-mile south of the airport. The ship was transferring Navy officials to shore by small boat. It took more than three days to free the warship.

“An investigation into the cause of the grounding is ongoing, and it would be premature to comment on it,” said Rear Adm. Joseph Walsh. “The only damage that we have been able to assess is the damage to the sonar dome, and the tips of the propeller blades have been sheared off.”

But when asked about damage to the ocean environment, there were few details.

“We will coordinate with the state, and we will conduct an underwater survey of the area to further identify exactly what the bottom type was like,” said Walsh, the Pacific Fleet chief of staff. “It’s a sand-rock bottom but has the potential - and again, I’m not a marine biologist - but that it has the potential to sustain life.”

Local fishermen and those who dive the area say there is substantial ocean life.

“Plenty tako in those waters,” says a fisherman who asked to remain anonymous. “We all know the Navy is not telling us everything.”

A full investigation by state and federal agencies may take weeks, but there is little doubt the environment was impacted. To what extent we may never know. What we do know is the $1 billion guided-missile cruiser was pulled, turned and twisted across the ocean floor for more than three days. The Navy also dumped 500 tons of seawater ballast into the ocean and about 100 tons of anchors, anchor chains and other equipment in order to lighten the ship’s load.

The Port Royal sits aground on a sandy shoal near the airport

We also know marine diesel was spotted in the area following the recovery operation.

“We did see a sheen, about a mile long by about 100 yards wide,” says Lt. John Titchen of the U.S. Coast Guard. “We estimate the sheen is probably about seven to eight gallons of marine diesel, which is a very thin fuel and very quickly burns off the surface of the water.”

The source of the diesel is unknown, and while oil pollution is a fineable offense, Titchen believes there won’t be any fines.

Finally, more than a day after the recovery, the state Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch announced the Port Royal discharged about 5,000 gallons of raw sewage.

“No official notification was given to the Department of Health even though two DOH staff persons attended a meeting Saturday afternoon at Pearl Harbor,” says Watson Okubo, monitoring and analysis section chief. Okubo advised the public to stay out of waters fronting the reef runway from the Keehi Channel to the Pearl Harbor channel, acknowledging the area is a popular diving area for tako.

“That’s what I mean about limited information from the Navy,” says the fisherman.

The commanding officer of the warship, Capt. John Carroll, was relieved of his duties pending results of an investigation.

In an eerie coincidence, the Port Royal returned to Pearl Harbor on the same day of another Navy accident in Hawaiian waters eight years ago. On Feb. 9, 2001, the Naval submarine USS Greeneville surfaced under the Ehime Maru off Diamond Head, sinking the ship and killing nine men and boys on board - a human error made aboard a vessel assigned to protect our waters.

Technology provides us with valuable tools, and ultimately we are responsible for the use of those tools - our ocean environment and those who use it count on it.


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