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Lax Regulations and Poor Safety Planning Set Stage for Baltimore Bridge Collapse

Decades of regulation failures and port policies prioritizing profits over safety led to the disaster in Baltimore.

Wreckage from the collapsed Francis Scott Key Bridge rests on the cargo ship Dali as efforts begin to clear the debris and reopen the Port of Baltimore on April 1, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland.

The recent, horrifying collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the early hours of March 26 was a tragic and very preventable tragedy with multiple sources of political responsibility that lay beyond the problems of the cargo ship’s malfunctioning electrical system. Despite the ship sending out a mayday signal when it lost power, it collided minutes later into the bridge. The accident led to the death of six Latino immigrant workers (and serious injuries of two more construction workers) after the 213 million-pound Sri Lanka-bound cargo vessel, Dali, struck the bridge. Video footage showed the spectacular collapse of this steel reinforced bridge, with 1.6 miles of bridge dramatically falling into the water in under a minute. The current cleanup efforts remain difficult, with 4,000 tons of bridge materials on top of the Dali, and a high pressurized natural gas line under the channel.

Now, a little over a week later, it still seems like an inconceivable tragedy, one more likely to happen in a Hollywood blockbuster than to represent a real threat. But at each step along the way, we see failures in regulation, failures to prioritize human safety over the urgency of profit and regional economic growth ambitions, and political leadership pushing private interest over public welfare. The strategy of pursuing economic growth in Baltimore through the modernization of its port and investment in its shipping industries, which began in 2012, has come with enormous human costs.

Political leadership, at both the federal and local levels, must address these failures of appropriate safeguards. (The ability to allow such massive ships into places like the Baltimore harbor was also made possible by the 2016 expansion of the Panama Canal, which allowed for larger capacity ships to connect from Asia to the East Coast.)

The Dali, a Singapore-flagged ship, has the capacity to carry up to 10,000 shipping containers (but only had about 4,500 containers the day of the fatal collapse). Despite the impressive capacity, it was still considered a medium-sized ship. The Ever Given, the ship that was infamously stuck in the Suez Canal in 2021, had a capacity of 20,000 TEU (20-foot shipping containers), and was as long as the Empire State Building is tall. By shipping industry standards, any vessel with a carrying capacity over 10,000 TEU is considered an “ultra large container ship.”

The Dali was built by a Korean company but chartered by a Danish company, Maersk, for its journey from Baltimore to Sri Lanka. The owner was a Singapore-based company, and the manager of the ship was also based in Singapore. The workers were from India. This diverse set of national connections exemplifies what Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect calls the “fractured responsibility” of modern shipping vessels. (The last time the Dali had an accident was in Antwerp, Belgium, in 2016, while it was chartered by a Greek company.) In fact, both the owner and manager of the Dali are already seeking to limit their liability in federal court.

While 9/11 led to an impressive set of global inspection regimes to ensure the security of shipping container contents, no such regime exists to ensure the safety of the actual cargo ships themselves. Rather, under the “flag of convenience” system, ships are only as safe as the national inspection regimes of the country to which the ship is registered. This creates uneven inspection and safety regimes full of loopholes, allows the shipping industry to exploit workers and drive down wages of ship crews and provides a convenient way to pass the buck of responsibility. And the problems with this regime are well known. In fact, the International Transport Workers’ Federation has campaigned since 1948 to end this unsafe and exploitative practice, calling for a “genuine link between the flag a ship flies and the nationality or residence of its owners, managers and seafarers.” (Since the bridge collapse, the International Transport Workers’ Federation has come to Baltimore’s harbor to investigate ships and help with the Dali crew.)

The insurance firm Allianz published a study in 2019 on how larger ships lead to greater economic losses, and according to the firm’s more recent 2022 study, cargo ships have grown in their carrying capacity by 1,500 percent in the past 50 years, with an impressive doubling in cargo capacity of the largest ships in the past 20 years. While the Dali was not among the largest ships, the Francis Scott Key Bridge (and much of existing waterway infrastructure) was not built to accommodate large modern cargo ships. Rather, the largest ships were one-third of the size of the Dali when the Key Bridge was completed in 1977.

Despite concerns about safety, especially as these extremely large ships are at risk of colliding or causing other problems (the Ever Given held up $60 billion worth of trade), a competitive race to build larger capacity ships continues. In January 2024, a maritime industry publication bragged about a new record broken, with the successful loading of a new megaship called ONE Intelligence, with a capacity of 24,000 TEU. Larger ships are not just notable for their carrying capacity, but are also harder to navigate, stop, and are very heavy (even without their cargo). Despite the crew of the Dali sending out a mayday signal, the ship was far too big to stop in its path. Civil engineers have compared the force of the strike from the Dali to the force of a rocket launch, one that 99 percent of modern U.S. bridges would not be able to withstand.

Moreover, the growing shipping industry is a significant contributor to climate change, with cargo ships contributing nearly 3 percent of global carbon emissions. One of the speculative explanations of the Dali’s breakdown attributes the cause to contaminated fuel — an “open secret” in the shipping world. While fuel contamination has caused other ship breakdowns, these incidents typically happen in the open sea with less deadly (although often costly) outcomes. However, the global system to regulate fuel contamination suffers from gaps in oversight and self-regulation, as most contamination is the result of accidents.

While we can see the risks of very large cargo ships, these ships were also fundamental to the revitalization of Baltimore’s economy, following modernization of the Port of Baltimore in 2012 to accommodate these new megaships. This included dredging the harbor to make it deep enough to accommodate large ships, and installing four very large cranes to help unload the containers. (In fact, Baltimore harbor brought in an even bigger ship in 2021, with 50 percent greater capacity than the Dali.) Now, Baltimore harbor handles double the cargo volume it did 20 years ago. As a result of this investment in shipping, Baltimore’s economy was thriving at the time of bridge collapse.

But of course, all of these changes that brought both economic growth opportunities and risks from the larger ships are the result of political decisions made over the objections of those worried about safety.

Current senatorial candidate and former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan played an important role in clearing the way to make Baltimore harbor ready for even larger and greater capacity megaships under his tenure, despite insurance companies and trade groups expressing concerns about the potential safety risks. And while Hogan invested millions in expanding safety for ships coming into the ports, Hogan’s 2018 grant administration project did not include modernizations or adaptations of the nearby high ship traffic Francis Scott Key Bridge.

While the Baltimore port and harbor’s expansion created thousands of jobs, political leadership’s failure to adequately assess risks has cost workers’ lives and created a complete shutdown of Baltimore’s once bustling ports.