Ship operators: Pilot’s drug use caused spill

The company that operated the container ship that spilled more than 50,000 gallons of oil into the Bay in November will argue in court that the local pilot’s use of prescription drugs is to blame, an attorney for the shipping company said today.

The environmental disaster began on the morning of Nov. 7 when the Cosco Busan struck a Bay Bridge support tower while moving through heavy fog. Recordings made by on-board equipment reveal that Petaluma pilot Capt. John Cota and the Chinese crew of the 900-foot container ship struggled to use navigation devices.

Marine mammals and thousands of birds were killed by the spilled oil, which still sullies area shorelines.

Cota is facing misdemeanor charges related to alleged environmental crimes for his alleged role in the accident. If convicted, Cota could be imprisoned for up to 18 months and fined up to $115,000.

The U.S. Department of Justice has also charged Cota with two felony charges for allegedly lying to U.S. Coast Guard officials about his medical history when he secured his pilot’s license. If convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to 10 years and fined up to $500,000.

In addition to misdemeanor charges related to environmental crimes, Hong Kong-based shipping company Fleet Management faces six felony charges related to alleged false statements made by company officials to investigators after the accident. If convicted, the company could be fined more than $3 million.

Fleet Management attorney Marc Greenberg told U.S. District Judge Susan Illston in court today that he will raise Cota’s history of drug use during the upcoming combined trial, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17.

Federal investigations revealed that Cota relies on a cocktail of prescription drugs to treat an array of medical problems, including sleep apnea, and that he was convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1999.

“It is a part of our defense that he lost situational awareness because of his drug use and abuse,” Greenberg said. “That’s why he looked at the radar and didn’t see what he should have seen.”

Cota’s attorney, Jeffrey Bornstein, told Illston his client’s trial should be severed from Fleet Management’s trial because attorneys for the company would rely on “character assassination” of Cota in their defense.

Illston previously denied a similar request, but Bornstein said his renewed call was based on new court filings.

Bornstein also said Cota’s trial should be held outside of the Bay Area because of intense local media coverage of the incident and subsequent investigations. “He’s already been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion,” Bornstein said.

Cota was in the courtroom today, but he did not speak or appear before Illston. The next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 22.

jupton@sfexaminer.com

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