Bar Pilot in San Francisco Bay oil spill is sentanced to 10-month prison term

In a decision that has angered many maritime pilots, the San Francisco bar pilot in the Cosco Busan disaster has been sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.

About 58,000 gallons of oil spilled into San Francisco Bay after the 901-foot containership struck a bridge tower in fog on Nov. 7, 2007. The pilot pleaded guilty to violating the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In July, a District Court judge in San Francisco handed down the prison sentence, which was later upheld following an appeal.

The U.S. Department of Justice said the pilot acted negligently by sailing in severe fog, failing to conduct a proper master-pilot exchange and not ensuring that he understood the ship’s radar and electronic chart. He allegedly never asked for extra watch personnel or position fixes. Earlier, he failed to disclose medical conditions and prescription drug use to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The pilot was “guilty of far more than a mere slip-up or an otherwise innocuous mistake that yielded unforeseeably grave damage,†federal prosecutors said in a statement announcing the prison sentence. “Rather, he made a series of intentional and negligent acts and omissions, both before and leading up to the incident.â€

At the sentencing hearing, the pilot apologized to the people of the Bay Area.

“Pilots view themselves as the first protectors of the environment,†the pilot told the court. “That is why it is particularly painful to have played a role in an accident that has damaged it. Clearly, I should have done some things differently.â€

The American Pilots’ Association (APA) said a prison term is improper in such a case. It’s one more example of mariners being singled out as criminals when a comparable accident in any other industry would be treated as a civil case only, according to the APA.

“The prison sentence is unjust and unfair,†said Paul Kirchner, a lawyer who is the APA’s executive director of general counsel. “The use of criminal charges for unintentional conduct — and that’s what we’re talking about here — is unreasonable. It’s not going to have a beneficial effect on the shipping industry or marine safety.â€

The pilot’s attorneys had argued that the Cosco Busan accident was more the fault of the ship’s captain and operator, Fleet Management Ltd. of Hong Kong. Fleet Management faces similar charges, plus obstruction of justice and making false statements. Trial is set for Sept. 14.

“He simply misread the chart and got bad advice from the ship’s captain and crew, and he didn’t realize that they didn’t realize what they were doing,†said the pilot’s criminal defense lawyer, Jeffrey Bornstein. “It’s the first time, as far as we know, that a pilot has been sent to prison on a pollution case.â€

The pilot’s sentence “should serve as a deterrent to shipping companies and mariners who think violating the environmental laws that protect our nation’s waterways will go undetected or unpunished,†said U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello. “They will be vigorously prosecuted.â€

Cosco Busan’s heavy fuel oil fouled 26 miles of shoreline. Prosecutors used the migratory bird law against the pilot because 2,500 seabirds were killed, including endangered brown pelicans and marbled murrelets.

Kirchner said Congress never intended the migratory bird law to apply to a maritime casualty. Other recent cases of mariners being jailed after accidents include the German captain of MV Zim Mexico III, who spent four months behind bars in Mobile, Ala., and two Indian officers from MV Hebei Spirit who sat in jail for 540 days following South Korea’s worst oil spill.

“The problem is, this is not limited to (the San Francisco pilot),†Kirchner said. “It’s the general idea of criminalizing marine casualties. It’s been going on for a long time, and I think the entire maritime industry is opposed to it.â€

Bornstein said officers aboard a ship during an oil spill should now assume that they’ll be charged criminally. Such an approach by prosecutors casts a pall over industry efforts to cooperate in the prevention of future casualties, he said.

The pilot will report to a minimum-security prison Sept. 18.
Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff