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Ship's pilot charged in Bay Area oil disaster

The pilot of a ship that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay in November has been charged with criminal negligence and breaking environmental laws.
Image: Damaged ship
A gash seen on the Cosco Busan on Nov. 10 reveals where oil gushed out after the container ship hit a Bay Bridge tower four days earlier.Noah Berger / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The pilot of a ship that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay in November was charged by federal prosecutors Monday with criminal negligence and breaking environmental laws.

Capt. John Cota faces as much as 18 months in jail and more than $100,000 in fines if convicted of the misdemeanor charges, including harming migrant birds protected by the government and violating the Clean Water Act. Cota was not taken into custody, according to court papers.

He was at the helm of the container ship Cosco Busan when it struck a fender protecting a support tower beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on its way to South Korea on Nov. 7. The ship emptied 53,000 gallons of oil into the fragile bay, killing thousands of birds and closing more than a dozen beaches.

The “criminal information” filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco accuses Cota of failing to safely guide the container ship safely through the bay. Specifically, the government says Cota failed to use the ship’s radar as he approached the Bay Bridge; failed to adequately review the proposed course with the captain; and failed to use navigational aids that might have helped him avoid disaster.

“These failures led to the Cosco Busan striking the bridge and spilling the oil,” the Justice Department said in a statement.

Pilot blamed electronics
Cota has disputed some of those allegations.

He told investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, for example, that he relied upon his radar when fog closed in on the ship that morning. But, he said, the radar became “distorted” and “unreliable” as he attempted to navigate the bay, so he switched to the ship’s electronic charting system.

Cota also told investigators he reviewed the electronic charts with the Chinese captain before departing.

Several weeks after the crash, the Justice Department sued, accusing Cota and the ship’s owners of violating the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Park System Resource Protection Act. The suit accuses the defendants of “fault, negligence and breach of federal safety and operating regulations.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages to compensate taxpayers for the federal response to the spill. It said the sum of those damages “is not known and shall be established according to proof at the time of trial.”

As a result of the Cosco Busan spill, an estimated 2,000 birds died, including federally endangered brown pelicans and the federally threatened marbled murrelet. The losses also included Western grebes.

Rush to judge alleged
Cota’s attorney, Jeff Bornstein, accused the government of bringing charges before the NTSB concluded its investigation of the crash. The NTSB’s final report containing a “probable cause” is not expected until the end of this year.

“Their decision to bring the charges at this time surprises us, given the fact that the NTSB is still continuing to really focus on exactly what happened and all the factors that are involved in that,” Bornstein said.

Bornstein said he was not aware of any similar prosecutions that came “before a finding of exactly what occurred.”

“This is something that concerns us,” he said in a telephone interview.

In a separate prepared statement, Bornstein said: “We are hopeful that our dialogue with the government will continue, but we are prepared to vigorously defend against these criminal allegations. We strongly believe that once all of the evidence is heard, a jury will find in Captain Cota’s favor.”

Cota suffers from sleep apnea and to ward of drowsiness was taking a prescription drug whose known side effects include impaired judgment, officials with knowledge of the investigations told The Associated Press in January. There is no mention of the drug issue in the criminal information.