Ship pilots still avoid some drug tests

The bar pilot who was found to be responsible for a 2007 oil spill in San Francisco Bay has served his prison sentence, but his former colleagues continue to avoid the types of drug tests that could have prevented the disaster.

Veteran mariner John Cota is due to finish a 10-month federal prison sentence today, which he served for environmental misdemeanors after piloting the Cosco Busan container ship into a Bay Bridge tower Nov. 7, 2007.

The accident tore open fuel tanks, leading to a 53,500-gallon spill that killed birds and seals, closed beaches, suspended fishing and devastated bait-fish populations, wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators identified many causes of the crash, including insufficient crew training by the ship operator, the crew’s unwillingness to challenge Cota’s decisions, the Coast Guard’s failure to warn Cota that he was off course and Cota’s decision to sail in fog.

Six crew members were granted immunity from prosecution and forced to remain in Northern California for a year as material witnesses. Ship operator Fleet Management faces fines and lawsuits.

But Cota was the only person charged with a crime.

Investigators blamed Cota’s use of prescription drugs, including Vicodin and Valium or generic equivalents, as a cause of the accident.

The pilot used a chart to navigate through the Bay after telling the ship’s master that he couldn’t use the radar, which investigators said was working. Cota misinterpreted triangles on the chart, which represented a bridge tower, and sailed toward them. He avoided a head-on crash after a lookout spotted the tower.

Cota was not tested for pharmaceuticals after the accident. In court, he denied being affected by them.

State lawmakers made changes after the spill to help avoid such incidents in the future.

Bar pilots now carry personal navigation equipment, for example, and their health is checked by an approved doctor. But while they can be tested for using marijuana and other narcotics, they aren’t tested for prescription drugs.

The policy complies with state and federal regulations.

“They’re not tested for pharmaceuticals,” said Michael Miller, president of the Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun.

“There are about 11,000 pharmaceuticals out there,” Miller said. “There aren’t tests for very many prescriptions.”

Miller said a board committee is investigating whether the drug policy should change.

Bar pilots must report medication use to an approved doctor, and failure to do so could cost them their job, Miller said.


Accident-prone Cota called his last shot

For all the mistakes made by bar pilot John Cota on Nov. 7, 2007, the veteran got one thing right.

Piloting the Cosco Busan that morning, Cota left the Port of Oakland in heavy fog and, after a series of errors by himself and others, crashed the fully loaded container ship and caused a major oil spill.

It was Cota’s 14th accident as a pilot and the 10th where he was counseled or blamed afterward.

But the Petaluma resident correctly predicted that it would be his last.

“I don’t think I’m gonna beat this one,” Cota told a colleague after they boarded the damaged container ship to take over the reins, according to a transcript.

Cota, 62, is due to be released today by the Sacramento Community Corrections Office.

He served a 10-month federal prison sentence in Arizona and California after pleading guilty to environmental misdemeanors in connection with the accident. The U.S. had never before doled out a prison sentence to a bar pilot for negligent actions.

Although Cota’s prison nightmare is over, his career is finished and he will have to fight to cling to his life savings, which is jeopardized by lawsuits. — John Upton


Prescription intake

Drugs obtained by Petaluma resident and pilot John Cota in the 60 days before the Nov. 7, 2007, Cosco Busan crash and oil spill:

– 200 tablets of hydrocodone and acetaminophen, a painkiller, sold as Vicodin
– 190 tablets of propoxyphene, a painkiller, sold as Darvon
– 120 tablets of diazepam, a painkiller, sold as Valium
– 50 tablets of pentazocine and naloxone, a painkiller, sold as Talwin
– 27 tablets of sumatriptan, which treats migraine headaches, sold as Imitrex
– 180 tablets of lorazepam, which treats anxiety, sold as Ativan
– 90 tablets of modafinil, which improves wakefulness in patients with sleep disorders, sold as Provigil
– 90 tablets of sertraline, an antidepressant, sold as Zoloft
– 100 tablets of diphenoxylate and atropine, which treat gastrointestinal problems, sold under many names
– 50 tablets of prochlorperazine, which treat nausea, vomiting, schizophrenia and anxiety, sold as Compazine

Sources: National Transportation Safety Board,

This article was corrected Aug. 16, 2010. The original article said Cota was not tested for drugs after the accident. The article should have stated Cota was not tested for pharmaceuticals after the accident.

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