Sunday, March 08, 2009

Pilot of ship in San Francisco spill pleads guilty

The pilot of a cargo ship that slammed into the San Francisco Bay Bridge in 2007, resulting in a massive oil spill that killed more than 2,000 birds, has pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors.Under the deal, Cosco Busan pilot John Cota would serve up to 10 months in prison and be fined up to 30,000 for two violations of environmental law.The accident sent more than 53,000 gallons (200,000 liters) of fuel gushing into San Francisco Bay and polluted miles of pristine coastline.Judge Susan Illston, who still has to accept terms of the plea deal, set sentencing for June 19.Cota pleaded guilty to polluting San Francisco Bay and to killing birds as part of a deal with prosecutors to drop charges that he lied on medical forms. Cota, who has 26 years of experience as a pilot operating in San Francisco Bay, acknowledged that he failed to disclose he was taking a series of drugs -- including anti-depressants and pain relievers -- that might have impaired his ability to pilot the 901-foot (275-meter) container ship."Today's guilty plea is a reminder that the Cosco Busan crash was not just an accident, but a criminal act," said John Cruden of the US Justice Department.The ship's owner, Hong Kong-based Fleet Management Ltd., has pleaded not guilty to charges in the crash and faces a September 14 trial.Fleet is charged with negligence, as well as obstructing justice and making false statements by allegedly falsifying ship records.The National Transportation Safety Board issued a report last month that also blamed US Coast Guard officers for their role in the spill.NTSB member Debbie Hersman said the Coast Guard saw the ship was headed toward the bridge but never ordered Cota to change course.Hersman also said the Coast Guard should have urged or ordered the ship to stay in port. Heavy fog was limiting visibility to less than a quarter-mile (400 meters) in some areas at the time of the November 2007 crash.

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