(Excerpted from an article from Bob Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle. Click here to read full article)
The company operating the container ship that struck the Bay Bridge in November 2007 and spilled more than 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of water pollution and falsifying documents and agreed to pay $10 million in fines and penalties.
Fleet Management Ltd. of Hong Kong admitted two felony charges and a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in San Francisco after negotiating its fine with federal prosecutors. Judge Susan Illston, who can accept or reject the agreement, scheduled sentencing for Dec. 11.
The ship’s pilot, Capt. John Cota, was sentenced to 10 months in prison last month after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of polluting the waters and killing migratory birds. Cota was navigating the 901-foot Cosco Busan when it hit a tower of the bridge in thick morning fog Nov. 7, 2007. Oil that poured from the ship spread along 26 miles of shoreline and killed more than 2,400 birds. The government estimates the cleanup cost at $70 million.
In its guilty plea, Fleet Management admitted that it was partly to blame for the accident because it failed to provide adequate training to the ship’s new captain and crew, who allowed Cota, the locally assigned pilot, to leave port in the fog and did not monitor his navigation.
When Cota asked about two red triangles that showed up on the ship’s electronic chart, the captain told him they represented lights on the bridge, and Cota headed the vessel in that direction at full speed, according to court documents acknowledged by Fleet Management. In fact, the documents said, the lights represented buoys that were supposed to warn ships away from the bridge tower. The Cosco Busan hit the bridge several minutes later.
Fleet Management also admitted presenting false and forged documents to the Coast Guard about the ship’s voyage plan in order to obstruct the government’s investigation. The company agreed to pay $8 million in fines and $2 million to a government fund for environmental projects, including cleanup of water pollution. Fleet Management and Cota are also defendants in multimillion-dollar lawsuits by government agencies, fishers and others claiming financial losses from the spill.