- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The pilot of a 65,131-ton container ship that rammed the San Francisco Bay Bridge in November, discharging 58,000 gallons of oil, was charged yesterday with violations of the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Justice Department said.

Assistant Attorney General Ronald J. Tenpas, who heads the department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, said John Joseph Cota, the pilot aboard the Cosco Busan, negligently caused the discharge of heavy fuel oil from the ship in violation of the Clean Water Act.

According to a criminal complaint in the case, Mr. Cota was piloting the ship from port in heavy fog on Nov. 7, but failed to set a collision-free course and did not adequately review the proposed course with the captain and crew on official navigational charts.

Also, the complaint says, he failed to use the ship’s radar as he approached the Bay Bridge. Throughout the voyage, he also did not use official navigational aids to verify the ship’s position. The criminal complaint said these failures led to the Cosco Busan’s bridge accident and oil spill.

Records filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco said Mr. Cota was licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the state of California as a bar pilot. He was a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilots and had been employed in the San Francisco Bay since 1981.

Mr. Cota was not arrested. His attorney, Jeff Bornstein, said he was surprised that the government brought charges in the case before the National Transportation Safety Board concluded its investigation of the crash.

“The NTSB is still continuing to really focus on exactly what happened and all the factors that are involved in that,” Mr. Bornstein said, adding that he was not aware of any similar prosecutions “before a finding of exactly what occurred.”

The NTSB will hold a public hearing and receive expert testimony on the case next month.

Pilots are licensed professionals responsible for navigating ships through challenging waters. In California, large oceangoing vessels are required to be piloted when entering or leaving port.

The Justice Department said the discharge of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan resulted in the deaths of 2,000 birds, including brown pelicans, marbled murrelets and western grebes. The brown pelican is a federally endangered species and the marbled murrelet is listed as a threatened species by federal law and an endangered species by California law.

The court documents show that Mr. Cota is charged with one count each of violating the Clean Water Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Clean Water Act is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is six months in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Justice Department officials said the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, the FBI, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response, are continuing to investigate.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Geis is prosecuting the case in California, and David Joyce, a trial lawyer with the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, is prosecuting the case in Washington.

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