Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Guilty Plea in San Francisco Bay Oil Spill

The legal case against the pilot of the Cosco Busan, the source of an oil spill in San Francisco Bay two years ago, has resulted in a plea bargain:

Capt. John Cota, 61, admitted in a San Francisco courtroom that he acted negligently in piloting the 901-foot-long Cosco Busan in a heavy morning fog Nov. 7, 2007, without using the ship's radar or discussing his plans with the captain and crew. He also admitted failing to disclose all the prescription drugs he was taking when he renewed his federal and state pilot's licenses in 2006 and 2007....

Besides imprisonment, the plea agreement includes a fine of between $3,000 and $30,000. Cota, a vessel pilot for 26 years, has surrendered his license and said in his plea agreement that he would not reapply until January 2010.

Cota and the ship's owners and operators are also defendants in civil damage suits by state and federal agencies and by fishers and crabbers seeking reimbursement for their losses....

The Cosco Busan hit the second tower of the bridge west of Yerba Buena Island. Oil pouring from a gash on the ship's port side killed more than 2,000 birds and reached the bay shoreline and ocean beaches in Marin and San Mateo counties. Government agencies have estimated the cost of the damage and the cleanup at $60 million.

Last month the National Transportation Safety Board found that Cota had made numerous errors and had been impaired by his prescription drugs.

The board also faulted the ship's captain for failing to plot a navigation plan or communicate with Cota. It criticized state and federal regulators for continuing to license Cota despite his sleep disorder, his use of medications known to affect judgment, and what investigators described as his history of accidents.

The ship's operating company, Fleet Management Ltd. of Hong Kong, still faces six felony charges for allegedly falsifying documents to interfere with the federal investigation. Illston granted the company's request to postpone its trial from April to Sept. 14.
In this case, Cota admitted to violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Here is some background on the charges against the company.