A container ship pilot was sentenced in federal court in San Francisco today to 10 months in prison for his role in a spill of more than 53,000 gallons of oil into the San Francisco Bay in 2007.
The 10-month sentence for John Cota, 61, of Petaluma, was the maximum allowed in a plea agreement in which Cota pleaded guilty in March to two misdemeanor crimes of negligently polluting the Bay and killing migratory birds.
U.S. District Judge Susan Illston said, “I know there is a lot of blame to go around and there were a lot of authors in this tragedy, but I think Captain Cota was right in the middle of that.”
Illston said Congress had made a crime to engage in negligence resulting in an oil spill “in order to protect the environment against the very kinds of things that have happened here.”
Cota was the pilot of the Cosco Busan when the ship struck a protective fender of a San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge support pillar in heavy fog on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of heavy bunker fuel into the Bay.
The spill fouled beaches around the Bay, killed more than 2,000 birds and disrupted the fishing industry. The damage and clean-up costs are estimated at more than $70 million.
Cota told the judge, “I apologize to you and the people of the Bay Area for the harm my actions have caused.
“I willingly accept my responsiblity for role in the accident that spilled oil and killed birds,” the pilot said.
Defense attorney Jeff Bornstein asked for a two-month sentence, the minimum specified in the plea agreement. He argued that Cota has lost his career and reputation and that mistakes by the ship captain and crew and the Coast Guard’s failure to warn of the impending crash were also factors in the accident.
Prosecutor Stacey Geis told the judge that Cota made a series of “inexplicable” bad choices, including choosing to sail in thick fog, failing to communicate adequately with the captain and crew and failing to resolve problems he had with the ship’s radar.
As a result of the plea bargain, prosecutors dropped two additional felony counts that charged Cota failed to reveal his all his medications and medical conditions on pilot medical forms in 2006 and 2007.
Prosecutors said in sentencing briefs that it will never be known for certainty whether Cota may have been impaired by prescription medicines at the time of the accident.
But Illston said she was making no finding of impairment and Cota told her, “I was not impaired in any way on the morning of Nov. 7, 2007.”
The company that was managing the ship, Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd., faces the same two misdemeanor charges as well as six additional counts of making false statements and obstructing civil justice by allegedly falsifying transit documents after the accident.
Its trial is scheduled for Sept. 14.
Cota, Fleet Management, and the ship’s owner, Regal Stone Ltd. of
Hong Kong, also face several civil lawsuits filed by fishermen and federal, state and local government agencies.
Cota’s wife, Teresa Barrett, also addressed the judge during the sentencing, saying that her husband “has become the public face of a tragedy that was not his alone.”
Barrett and Bornstein said at the hearing that Cota has already paid $500,000 in legal fees in the criminal case and potentially faces millions more dollars in damage assessment in the civil cases.
Illston declined to impose a fine on Cota, saying that under the circumstances he had no ability to pay it.
The law making it a crime to cause an oil spill through negligence was enacted by Congress in 1990 in the aftermath of the Exxon Valdez spill, in which a tanker hit a reef and spilled 10.8 million gallons of oil off the Alaska coast.
Bornstein said the case is the first time in U.S. history that a maritime pilot has been sent to prison for an accident.
The Cosco Busan was on its way from the Port of Oakland to South Korea when it hit the fender of the bridge pier and sustained a 212-foot gash that released the oil into the Bay.