Ship Pilot Charged in San Francisco Bay Oil Spill

SAN FRANCISCO, California, March 18, 2008 (ENS) – The pilot of the container ship that collided with the San Francisco Bay Bridge last November resulting in a 58,000 gallon oil spill, was charged Monday with violating two federal laws, the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

According to the criminal charges filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, John Joseph Cota was pilot of Hanjin Shipping’s 810 foot long container ship Cosco Busan on November 7, 2007.

The U.S. Justice Department and the State of California allege that Cota negligently caused the discharge of approximately 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan in violation of the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

According to the charges, while piloting the ship from port in heavy fog at 8:30 am, Cota failed to pilot a collision free course and failed to adequately review the proposed course with the captain and crew on official navigational charts.

Further, he failed to use the ship’s radar as he approached the Bay Bridge, use positional fixes or verify the ship’s position using official aids of navigation, throughout the voyage. According to the charges, these failures led to the Cosco Busan striking the bridge and spilling the oil.

The Cosco Busan at anchor after the
November 7, 2007 collison that
ripped a 160 foot gash in her port
side. (Photo courtesy
U.S. Coast Guard)

Cota was licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of California as a Bar Pilot. He was a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilots and had been employed in the San Francisco Bay since 1981. Pilots are licensed professionals who are responsible for navigating ships through challenging waters. In California, large ocean-going vessels are required to be piloted when entering or leaving port.

As a result of the Cosco Busan oil spill, approximately 2,000 birds died, including brown pelicans, marbled murrelets and Western grebes. The brown pelican is a federally endangered species and the marbled murrelet is a federally threatened species and an endangered species under California law.

Cota is charged with one count of violating the Clean Water Act and one count of violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act,. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, is 6 months in prison and a $15,000 fine.

The Cosco Busan was carrying container cargo bound from Oakland to South Korea when she hit the base of the second tower west of Yerba Buena Island, striking the fender that protects each tower from damage. The bridge was not damaged, but the hull of the vessel was ripped open, spilling oil into San Francisco Bay.

Officials closed Baker Beach, Crissy Field, China Beach, Kirby Cove and Fort Point due to oil contamination.

The investigation into the incident is ongoing and is being conducted by the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the U.S. EPA Criminal Investigation Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response.

Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, crime victims have the right to attend all public hearings and provide input to the prosecution. Those adversely impacted by the oil spill are encouraged to visit to learn more about the case and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.

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