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Ship’s pilot charged in crash that spilled oil into San Francisco Bay

SCOTT LINDLAW
Associated Press Writer

SAN FRANCISCO ” The pilot of a ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay last November was charged by federal prosecutors Monday with criminal negligence and breaking environmental laws.

Capt. John Cota faces up to 18 months in jail and more than $100,000 in fines for 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.

Cota 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 “positional fixes or (to) verify the ship’s position using official aids of navigation” that might have helped him steer clear of disaster.

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

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 filed a lawsuit 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 federally threatened marbled murrelet, which are endangered under California law. The losses also included Western grebes.

Cota suffers from sleep apnea and was taking prescription medication to ward off drowsiness ” a 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.