Pilot charged in SF oil spill case

March 17, 2008 9:15:04 PM PDT
The first criminal charges have been filed in the Cosco Busan oil spill into San Francisco Bay. John Cota, the harbor pilot in charge that day, is being charged with breaking two federal environmental laws.

John Cota is said to be extremely disappointed tonight and fearful of the government, after being charged in November's 58,000 gallon oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. He was the pilot of the Cosco Busan when it slammed into the bay bridge.

"We don't have to show that he intended to actually ram the bridge. What we need to show is his conduct, or his failure to act, constituted negligence," says U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello.

Russoniello says the government charges are misdemeanors. Specifically, the criminal complaint accuses Cota of departing the port in heavy fog, failing to proceed at a safe speed, failing to use the ship's radar while making the final approach to the bridge, and failing to verify the ship's position. Cota is the subject of numerous investigations. His attorney calls the criminal case a rush to judgment.

"We think it's premature and we think it's unwarranted. We think that this was an accident. There were lots of things involved in this and Captain Cota, in particular, was a man trying to do his job," says Cota's Attorney Jeff Bornstein.

But according to the criminal complaint, Cota violated the Federal Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, by killing three species of endangered birds. The environmental group, BayKeeper, is pleased with the charges.

"Environmental damage is something that should be addressed through our laws, and again, people who do cause environmental damage, should be held accountable for that," says Jennifer Kovecses of BayKeeper.

Six of the Cosco Busan's crew members, foreign nationals from China, are still being held in the Bay Area for questioning.

They are not perceived at his point to be targets of the investigation, but their testimony is essential to fill out the picture of what exactly went on.

They cant hold those folks indefinitely, so Joseph Russoniello says, the fact that that crew needs to get to its native land is one reason they need to act quickly to file these charges against Cota. Cota's Attorney says, with hearings scheduled next month in Washington before the National Transportation Safety Board, the Justice Department could have waited. If convicted, Cota faces a year-and-half behind bars and $115,000 dollars in fines.


Load Comments