Ship's pilot charged in SF oil spill

March 17, 2008 1:10:26 PM PDT
The pilot of a ship that spilled 58,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay after crashing into a bridge last November has been charged with criminal negligence and breaking environmental laws. Capt. John Cota faces misdemeanor charges, including harming migrant birds protected by the government and violating the Clean Water Act.

Cota was at the helm of the container ship Cosco Busan during the Nov. 7 collision with the Bay Bridge. He faces up to a year in jail and more than $100,000 in fines, the Justice Department said.

The charges, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, accuse Cota of ignoring heavy fog to pilot the ship without designating or reviewing a safe course through the bay with the ship's crew.

The government also says Cota "failed to use the ship's radar as he approached the Bay Bridge" or rely on any other navigational devices 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.

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 was not taken into custody, according to court papers. His attorney, Jeff Bornstein, accused the government of bringing charges before the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its investigation of the crash.

"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.

The NTSB plans to hold a public hearing on the case April 8-9, where it will hear from experts, and the board anticipates establishing a "probable cause" by the end of 2008.

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Associated Press writer Scott Lindlaw in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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