The company operating the vessel responsible for a 53,000-gallon oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 2007 has agreed to pay $10 million under a plea deal reached today, federal prosecutors said.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd. agreed to plead guilty to violating the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a misdemeanor, as well as to felony obstruction of justice and false statements charges, in the aftermath of the Nov. 7, 2007, crash of the Cosco Busan into the Bay Bridge.
After leaving the Port of Oakland that morning on its way to Korea, the 900-foot container ship struck a Bay Bridge fender in dense fog, opening a 150-foot gash in the ship’s side.
More than 2,000 migratory birds died as a result of the oil spill, including endangered and threatened species. Damage to beaches, wildlife and the fishing industry was estimated at $70 million.
The ship’s pilot, John Cota, 61, of Petaluma, pleaded guilty in federal court in March to two misdemeanor charges for polluting the Bay and killing migratory birds. He was sentenced last month to 10 months in prison and 200 hours of community service.
Today’s guilty plea by Fleet Management is still subject to the approval of federal Judge Susan Illston.
If approved, $2 million of the $10 million penalty would go to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to fund marine environmental projects in the San Francisco Bay and other areas affected by the spill.
The company would also have to implement a compliance plan that includes better training for vessel commanders and navigators.
Sentencing for Fleet Management is scheduled for Dec. 11.
Under the agreement, the company admitted the crew of the ship didn’t have adequate knowledge of some of the ship’s navigational equipment, and didn’t prepare written passage plans or correctly utilize the ship’s radar and electronic chart systems.
The company also admitted to concealing ship records and creating false documents at the direction of supervisors, intending to influence the Coast Guard’s investigation of the incident, in the month following the crash.
A joint statement of facts agreed to by the company showed miscommunications between the ship’s master and Cota in the minutes leading up to the crash.
Nine minutes before the crash, Cota saw two red triangles on the ship’s electronic chart system and asked the master what they meant.
The master, not sure what they meant, incorrectly told Cota they were lights on the bridge, when in fact they represented buoys warning ships away from the Delta tower of the bridge.
Cota then went to full speed and ordered the ship toward the red triangles.
Just before the crash, Cota again asked the master about the triangles.
“This is the center of the bridge, right?” Cota said. “Yeah, yeah,” replied the master. Two minutes later, the ship struck the fender of the Delta tower.