Ship’s pilot charged with negligence

Criminal charges have been filed against the man who piloted a container ship into the Bay Bridge in November resulting in 58,000 gallons of oil spilling into San Francisco Bay — weeks before a scheduled hearing that could assess his claims that faulty navigational equipment contributed to the crash.

The Cosco Busan swiped the bumper on a Bay Bridge support tower in heavy fog Nov. 7, gashing a hole in the hull that released 58,000 gallons of toxic fuel. Area beaches were closed for months and thousands of birds were killed. Crews are still working to remove oil from shorelines around the Bay, according to the lead state cleanup official, Rob Roberts.

Pilot John Cota, of Petaluma, was recently charged with two federal misdemeanor charges of violating federal environmental laws that protect water quality and migratory birds.

The charges carry a maximum penalty of 18 months in jail and $115,000 in fines, according to court documents. Cota was not taken into custody and will voluntarily appear at court when trial dates are set, his attorney Jeffrey Bornstein said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in court documents alleged that Cota “negligently” caused oil to spill into the Bay by “failing to pilot a collision-free course,” failing to adequately review navigation charts and equipment with the ship’s captain and Chinese crew, departing port in heavy fog, failing to proceed at a safe speed despite limited visibility and failing to use the vessel’s radar while approaching the Bay Bridge.

Cota told investigators that the navigation equipment was faulty, according to Bornstein.

Bornstein on Monday said that the charges were “premature” because the National Transportation Safety Board hasn’t finished its investigation into the incident. “They’ve decided to criminalize this without allowing the NTSB to really finish its investigative work,” he said.

Board spokesman Peter Knudson on Monday said that the equipment manufacturers have been asked to attend a two-day hearing in April to help the agency “gather more information” for its investigation. He said the hearing was designed in part to help determine whether the ship’s navigation equipment was working at the time of the collision.

Al Lin, a professor of environmental law at UC Davis who previously practiced environmental law for the Department of Justice, described the charges as “conservative.”

Cota hasn’t been charged under the Endangered Species Act or Marine Mammal Protection Act — acts that can only be prosecuted if a violation is deliberate, according to Lin. Instead, Cota has been charged with negligence.

Examiner Staff Writer David Smith contributed to this report.

jupton@examiner.com

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