Big differences in the approach to responsibility


This fall’s contrast was sharp and obvious, but state officials who regulate the power companies that have started most of the major California wildfires in recent years didn’t seem to realize it:

While these state regulators never named a single executive or employee of Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas & Electric who decided to let dangerous vegetation stay near power lines and start fires. massive forest, maritime investigators looked at two recent, but much less damaging, disasters befalling individuals, aimed at sanctioning them for wrongdoing or negligence.

Make no mistake about it, the fire of a US Navy ship, the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard while anchored in San Diego in 2020, and the great oil spill that soiled swathes of Orange County beaches in October were very serious.

In one case, the US Navy lost a $ 1.2 billion ship to arson and slow response, while the other has seen beaches polluted to an extent unseen for at least six years, while the survival or continued activity of some wild animals has been endangered by the oil spill. Stretches of beach loved by thousands of Californians have been moved out of bounds at a time when they would normally have been crowded.

But neither of the two disasters caused disruption or damage comparable to that inflicted by one of the many wildfires started in many parts of California by errors or negligence by utility companies. The fires also endangered the drinking water supply for survivors who could return home.

And yet, as the Navy cites names in the Bonhomme Richard disaster and the Coast Guard continues to try to find those responsible for dragging an anchor on a well-known pipeline, no personal liability has not been assessed for most forest fires. On the contrary, they are regularly attributed to large public services, the identity of the decision-makers involved never being revealed and these individuals never being prosecuted or questioned publicly.

The Navy left no doubt as to who would be held responsible for the destruction of the Bonhomme Richard, which burned for nearly five days at its berth. Plumes of noxious smoke blanketed parts of San Diego and suburban National City as the blaze smoldered.

Investigators said a junior sailor, Apprentice Seaman Ryan Myers, who dropped out of SEAL training after just five days, started the fire. He was due in court this month for a preliminary hearing.

But the Navy did not stop with him. He named the mate who reportedly hesitated to sound the alarm when he saw smoke billowing from the blaze. Investigators found that the ship’s fire crews were poorly trained and that 90% of the fire stations on board were not functioning when the fire broke out. Officers will be cashiers and enlisted sailors will lose their rank or be demobilized before Bonhomme Richard’s story is over.

The Coast Guard, about a year later, immediately focused on ships anchored near the pipeline carrying oil ashore from an offshore platform. He quickly named a German-owned ship, the Rotterdam Express, as the prime suspect. This ship was closest to the pipeline before it broke.

Officers and crew will be charged when and if the Coast Guard is certain who was at fault for what. It may take weeks or months, but justice will be served to those responsible, as will Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia cruise ship after it capsized near Sardinia nine years ago. It took four years before Schettino was sentenced to 16 years for negligence and manslaughter in that accident, but Schettino now resides in a prison in Rome.

In contrast, the individuals responsible for the many wildfires in California lead normal lives, most of them treated as honest citizens, and none stigmatized for the disastrous decisions they have made, far more damaging than those. Navy personnel involved in the loss of the Bonhomme Richard or any choice made near the Orange. County oil spill.

The bottom line: It is high time that the landlocked California authorities learned something from the maritime authorities who exercise firm discipline when mariners make costly mistakes. But so far, there’s no indication that they’ve even noticed the big difference in their approach.

Email Thomas Elias at [email protected]