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Bay pilot pleads guilty to pollution law violations from 2007 incident

  • Story Highlights
  • John Joseph Cota pleads guilty to violating misdemeanor pollution laws
  • The pilot faces up to 10 months in prison, federal prosecutors say
  • Container ship Cosco Busan slammed into San Francisco's Bay Bridge in 2007
  • Massive oil spill killed more than 2,000 birds and cost $60 million to clean up
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The bay pilot who steered a container ship into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 2007, causing a massive oil spill, pleaded guilty Friday to violating misdemeanor pollution laws and faces up to 10 months in prison, federal prosecutors said.

At least 2,000 migratory birds died in the oil spill caused by the Cosco Busan accident in November 2007.

The Korean-flagged Cosco Busan rammed into San Francisco's Bay Bridge on November 7, 2007.

Prosecutors dropped felony charges against him.

John Joseph Cota, 61, pleaded guilty to violating the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a law enacted in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Cota gave orders to officers controlling the Korean-flagged Cosco Busan as the ship was leaving fog-shrouded San Francisco Bay, California, on November 7, 2007. The 901-foot ship struck fenders around the base of a bridge support tower, rupturing two of the ship's fuel tanks and spilling about 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay.

At least 2,000 migratory birds were killed. At the time, officials estimated clean-up costs at $60 million.

"Today's guilty plea is a reminder that the Cosco Busan crash was not just an accident, but a criminal act," said John C. Cruden, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

"John Cota was an experienced ship pilot that was handsomely compensated for his special knowledge of ships and expertise in local waters. His failure to act prudently under the circumstances caused a major environmental disaster that could have been far worse," said Joseph Russoniello, U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California.

Cota has piloted about 4,000 ships in the bay during his 27-year career, said his attorney, Jeffrey Bornstein.

Bonstein said Cota is remorseful and accepts responsibility for his part in the accident. But Bornstein also criticized the accident investigation. He said it was unfair and protected others who also bear responsibility.

"Captain Cota has been vilified by the media, lost his job, will now go to jail for at least 60 days, and still suffers under the weight of crushing civil lawsuits," Bornstein said. "He understands and accepts responsibility for his part in the accident and hopes that others will step forward and accept their roles and responsibilities as well."

Cota will be sentenced to 2 to 10 months in prison and be fined between $3,000 and $30,000, if the plea terms are accepted by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston. Sentencing is scheduled for June 19.

Prosecutors said the plea included factual admissions by Cota, including an acknowledgment his negligence "was a proximate cause of the [oil] discharge."

Cota also admitted that he failed to discuss the planned route with the ship's master or crew as required, or to use the ship's radar in the final approach to the bridge. He also failed to recognize two red triangles on the ship's electronic chart system that marked bridge tower buoys.

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Attorney Bornstein said the ship's master told Cota the red triangles represented the lights on the bridge, "which in Capt. Cota's knowledge were at the center of the span. He had no reason to think that the master didn't know what he was talking about." See the path

As part of the plea agreement with Cota, the government agreed to dismiss false statement charges pending against him. Those charges alleged that Cota failed to disclose his medications on required Coast Guard forms. The court ruled those charges would be tried separately.

But Cota admitted in the plea papers filed Friday his 2006 physical exam form failed to disclose some of the medications he was prescribed. Among them were two pain medications, three different drugs prescribed as sleeping aids and an antidepressant prescribed for an off-brand purpose.

Bornstein said there is no evidence that medication played any role in the accident.

At Friday's hearing, Illston set trial for the remaining defendant in the case, the ship's manager, Fleet Management Ltd. (Hong Kong), for Sept. 14. The charges include acting negligently, killing protected migratory birds, obstructing justice and making false statements by falsifying ship records after the incident.

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