On Friday, July 17, 2009, the USDOJ announced that John Joseph Cota, the pilot of the Cosco Busan was sentenced to serve ten (10) months in federal prison. The Cosco Busan, a 900-foot long container ship, collided with the San Francisco Bay Bridge and discharged approximately 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay on November 7, 2007.
Cota was sentenced according to the plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to negligently causing discharge in violation of the CWA and of a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The USDOJ sought incarceration because Cota was “guilty of far more than a mere slip-up or an otherwise innocuous mistake that yielded unforeseeably grave damage. Rather, he made a series of intentional and negligent acts and omissions, both before and leading up to the incident that produced a disaster that, as widespread as it was, could have had even worse consequences.”
Prosecutors provided the court with a list of Cota’s errors that included the following:
- Captain Cota left in extreme fog that was so thick that the bow of the vessel was not visible from the bridge. Captain Cota made the decision to leave in the fog while the pilots of six other large commercial vessels decided not to depart in the heavy fog which was less than 0.5 nautical miles.
- Having made the decision to leave port in impenetrable fog, Captain Cota took no action to assure the fortification of the bridge or bow watch or review the passage plan with the master and crew of the Cosco Busan. In particular, Cota failed to have a master-pilot exchange to review the transit plan.
- Captain Cota has subsequently claimed that he found both radar unreliable, but he did not notify the master or the Coast Guard that a required piece of equipment needed to safely navigate the ship had failed. Meanwhile, the captured images of the radar retained on the ship’s computer show that the radar was fully operational.
- The tape recorded conversations from the ship’s bridge show that Captain Cota was confused regarding the operation of the electronic chart system upon which he chose to rely including the meaning of 2 red triangles that marked buoys marking the tower of the bridge that he eventually hit.
- At no time during the voyage after leaving the berth at 8:07 a.m. and prior to 8:30 a.m. did Captain Cota, or any of the ship’s crew, consult the ship’s official paper navigational chart or take a single positional fix. Captain Cota did not ask any crew member to take any fixes or verify the ship’s position despite the lack of visibility. After the incident, Cota told the Coast Guard he did not request fixes because it is like “driving your car out of a driveway.”
Prosecutors also filed papers showing that Captain Cota had failed to disclose his medical conditions and prescription drug use on required annual forms submitted to the Coast Guard.
The clean-up costs have been estimated to exceed $70,000,000.00.
The grand jury indictment also charged Fleet Management Limited (Hong Kong), a ship management firm, with the same alleged offenses as well as false statements and obstruction of justice charges. Trial in that case is set for September 14, 2009. The case is being prosecuted, in part by Richard Udell, a senior trial attorney with the Environmental Crimes Section of the USDOJ. He is a VERY capable prosecutor, so the trial should be interesting.
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