A federal judge has turned down a bid by a pilot in a 2007 oil spill in the San Francisco Bay for a reduction of his 10-month sentence for two misdemeanor environmental crimes.

U.S. District Susan Illston said in a brief order that she believes the sentence for John Cota, 61, of Petaluma, was “appropriate” and that his negligent conduct “appears to be precisely the type Congress intended to penalize.”

Cota was at the helm of the Cosco Busan when the container ship struck a fender of a Bay Bridge pillar in heavy fog on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil into the Bay.

Illston sentenced him in San Francisco on July 17 to ten months in prison for negligently polluting the Bay in violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act and killing migratory birds.

Last week, Cota’s attorney, Jeff Bornstein, asked Illston to reduce the sentence to five months in prison and five months of home detention because of an alleged “clear error” in sentencing.

A federal court rule allows judges to correct sentences within seven working days if there has been a clear error. Today was the seventh day in Cota’s case.

Bornstein alleged that prosecutors misled Illston into believing that Congress amended the Clean Water Act in 1990 to include tougher criminal penalties for oil spills in the wake of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill of nearly 11 million gallons of oil off the Alaska coast.

The attorney argued that while the 1990 amendment clarified the law, the Clean Water Act had always covered oil spills because it criminalizes negligent discharges of toxic pollution.
Illston wrote in today’s ruling that Cota’s “point is well taken in that criminal penalties for the negligent discharge of pollution were available before the Exxon Valdez.”

But she wrote that “fundamentally, irrespective of when Congress first allowed penalties for the negligent discharge of oil, the conduct at issue in this case appears to be precisely the type that Congress intended to penalize.”

Illston said, “The court finds no reason to deviate from sentencing guidelines Congress has prescribed for defendant’s negligent acts.”

The Cosco Busan spill has been estimated to have cost more than $70 million in damage to beaches, wildlife and the fishing industry.

Cota pleaded guilty to the two misdemeanor charges in March.

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