Cosco Busan case steers into court

Capt. John Cota, the man at the helm of the cargo ship that hit the Bay Bridge and leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into the Bay, pleaded not guilty in federal court Friday to charges of negligence and killing protected birds.

Cota, 60, was charged on Monday by the U.S. Attorney’s Office with two federal misdemeanor charges of violating federal environmental laws protecting migratory birds and water quality for his role in the Cosco Busan spill.

The Cosco Busan, a 900-foot container ship, sideswiped the Delta tower of the Bay Bridge early on the foggy morning of Nov. 70. The resulting gash on the port side of the massive ship loosed 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Bay. Miles of Bay Area beaches were closed as thousands of oil-soaked birds died. It is considered the worst environmental crisis of the Bay in decades.

During the investigation, Cota said through his attorney that the ship’s radar systems malfunctioned and he switched over to an electronic charting system as the ship approached the bridge.

But, Cota has alleged, the Chinese captain of the all-Chinese crew directed him into the support tower instead of toward the middle of the span for safe passage.

Cota appeared calm and collected during the court proceeding Friday as his wife, Petaluma City Councilmember Teresa Barrett, looked on from public seating in the courtroom.

The 27-year San Francisco Bay harbor pilot requested a jury trial and was released on a $50,000 bond. He was surrendered his passport, and his travel is restricted to California and Nevada.

After the hearing before federal magistrate Joseph Spero, Cota did not reply to numerous questions asked by reporters, except one. When asked if he was “doing OK,” he said, “Yup.”

Cota’s attorney, Jeffrey Bornstein, said his client was “remorseful” about the incident and that it was a “very stressful” time for him and his family.

He continued to chide the government for bringing charges against Cota before the National Transportation Safety Board completed its investigation into the incident.

The NTSB will hold a two-day hearing April 8-9 to hear testimony from various agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Game and the San Francisco Bar Pilots Association, according to spokesman Peter Knudson.

Cota is due back in court April 4 for a status conference on his case.

If convicted, Cota could face a maximum of $115,000 in fines and 18 months in prison, according to court officials.

dsmith@examiner.com

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