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Ship pilot pleads guilty in SF Bay spill

In exchange for Capt. John Cota's guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges of illegally discharging oil and killing birds, federal prosecutors dropped two felony charges that Cota lied on annual medical forms required by the Coast Guard.

The plea deal calls for Cota to serve two months to 10 months in prison, although the agreement needs the approval of U.S. District Judge Susan Illston. Cota is scheduled to be sentenced June 19.

Cota was at the helm of the 900-foot Cosco Busan when it slammed into the Bay Bridge in heavy fog on Nov. 7, 2007, and spilled more than 50,000 gallons of oil that killed and injured thousands of birds and spoiled miles of coastline.

Federal prosecutor Jonathan Schmidt told the judge that Cota was responsible for the crash because of his failure to properly use the ship's navigation charts and equipment and a lack of communication between Cota and the ship's Chinese master and crew on the bridge. All container ships are operated by local pilots when they travel within San Francisco Bay.

"Captain Cota did not adequately review his intended course with the crew," Schmidt said. "Captain Cota's actions that day fell below the standard of care."

Cota's lawyer Jeff Bornstein told the judge that his client was negligent on the morning of the crash, but others also share the blame.

"The crew was incompetent," Bornstein said. "The Coast Guard made mistakes."

The National Transportation Safety Board said last month that Cota's prescription medications impaired his performance. The NTSB was told Cota was prescribed many pills, including lorazepam, an anti-anxiety drug, Imitrex for migraines, Provigil to increase wakefulness and darvon compound 65 for pain.

The board also blamed other factors for the crash. It stressed that the captain failed to oversee the pilot's performance and said the two poorly communicated what efforts should be undertaken to guide the ship through dense fog.

The board also found the ship's Hong Kong-based operator, Fleet Management Ltd., didn't properly train and prepare crew members before the accident and the Coast Guard failed to provide adequate medical oversight of the pilot.

Fleet Management has pleaded not guilty to felony charges of obstruction of justice. The company is charged with ordering at least one Chinese crew member to alter documents after the accident.

Cota also faces fines for his role in the disaster, but his lawyer and prosecutors agreed to let the amount Cota has to pay be determined by resolution of several lawsuits in which he's named, along with the ship's owner and operator, that were filed by federal, state and local governments to recoup the cost of the cleanup.


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