$44 million settlement reached in 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill

Four years after a container ship sideswiped the Bay Bridge, ripping open and spilling 53,000 gallons of fuel into San Francisco Bay, the people responsible for the spill have agreed to pay up.

Nearly a dozen local, state and federal agencies, and some local nonprofits, will be paid $44.4 million for the cost of responding to the spill and to continue restoration work in the Bay.

These fines — the largest secured since 1989’s Exxon Valdez oil spill — also conclude the government’s legal battle over the disastrous events of Nov. 7, 2007. That foggy morning, a prescription-drug-addled pilot misread navigational tools and steered the Cosco Busan container ship right at a tower of the Bay Bridge.  A crew member spotted the looming tower at the last minute, and clever steering allowed the ship to avoid a head-on collision, but when it scraped the base of the bridge, two fuel tanks tore open.

That error, combined with others made by a meek and poorly trained crew that did not follow protocol or confront the pilot when there was clearly a problem, led to the Bay’s worst environmental catastrophe in decades.

The damage was acute. An estimated 6,800 birds died; the herring fishery lost between a sixth and a third of its spawn; and an estimated 1.1 million fishing, boating and shoreline trips were aborted due to the soiling of 3,367 acres of habitat, about 10 percent of which still hasn’t recovered.

Pilot Capt. John Cota pleaded guilty to environmental crimes and spent 10 months in prison. Boat owner Regal Stone Ltd. and ship operator Fleet Management Ltd. were not charged with crimes, but have already paid
$10 million in fines.

Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno, one of seven officials who announced the settlement Monday afternoon, said the $44.4 million settlement will be paid by Cota and the two companies in a yet-to-be-determined distribution.

Officials said the settlement, which was submitted Monday in federal court, will be available for public comment for 30 days, then finalized.

About $2.1 million will come to San Francisco. Close to $1 million will repay City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office, which was a party to the case. The remaining $1.2 million will be deposited into a recreational use fund. The companies already reimbursed The City another $1.6 million.

The settlement also requires the federal government to spend $7 million on federal property and water in San Francisco. That money has not yet been targeted to particular projects, but could be spent on improvements at piers or public beaches, said Daphne Hatch, chief of natural resources for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Meanwhile, while the Bay has mostly recovered from the spill, there are still lingering effects. Some shoreline habitats are still struggling to re-establish themselves, and most bird species are still building up their populations again.

“If there’s anything that is the message today, it’s that if anybody is thinking of doing something that might harm the public trust of wildlife in California, they better think twice,” said John Laird, California’s secretary for Natural Resources. “This settlement will act as a very sufficient deterrent.”


Notable developments resulting from the 2007 oil spill in the Bay

November 2007: The 900-foot Cosco Busan container ship slams into the Bay Bridge in heavy fog, spilling more than 50,000 gallons of oil; the disaster closes beaches, halts crabbing and fishing, and kills fish eggs, seals and thousands of birds.

March 2008: The U.S. Attorney’s Office brings criminal charges against pilot Capt. John Cota.

July 2008: A federal grand jury indicts Cosco Busan operator Fleet Management Ltd. on six felony counts of falsifying documents to interfere with a federal probe; the company also is accused of two misdemeanors of criminal negligence for allegedly helping to cause the spill.

February 2009: The National Transportation Safety Board releases a report detailing the probable cause of the collision; it outlines safety issues due to low visibility, pilot Cota’s use of prescription medications and ineffective oversight, among other issues.

March 2009: Cota pleads guilty to two misdemeanor environmental crimes in exchange for prosecutors dropping felony counts. In July, he’s sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.

August 2009: Fleet Management pleads guilty to federal charges of water pollution and falsifying documents.

February 2010: A federal judge fines Fleet Management $10 million; the company is ordered to pay $8 million to the government and $2 million to a fund for environmental projects in the Bay.

January 2011: Fleet Management and ship owner Regal Stone Ltd. agree to pay San Francisco’s local commercial fishermen about $3.65 million in damages related to the spill.

September 2011: Fleet Management and Regal Stone agree to pay $44.4 million for cleanup costs and environmental damage to the San Francisco Bay and its wildlife.

— Staff report

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