Cosco Busan operator admits forging papers, will pay $10 million fine

The Hong Kong company that managed the operation of Cosco Busan has agreed to pay a $10 million criminal penalty after admitting responsibility in the 2007 oil-spill disaster in San Francisco Bay.

Fleet Management Ltd. pleaded guilty to negligently causing ecological damage under terms of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. The company pleaded guilty to felony obstruction of justice and making false statements after shoreside supervisors instructed the ship’s crew to forge documents during the investigation.

The plea agreement was reached in August. Environmental projects in San Francisco Bay will receive $2 million out of the total penalty, the Justice Department said.

“Fleet failed to meet its obligation under international law to ensure the crew was adequately trained on navigation procedures and equipment,†said Joseph Russoniello, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. “Vessel operators cannot abdicate their responsibilities to ensure safety and environmental protection without suffering serious consequences.â€

About 58,000 gallons of fuel spilled into the bay after Cosco Busan went off course in thick fog and struck the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The San Francisco bar pilot aboard the 901-foot containership has been sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for his role in the accident and spill.

With its guilty plea, Fleet Management signed a document admitting that Cosco Busan’s crew was not adequately familiar with navigation equipment. There was no berth-to-berth passage plan and no proper master-pilot exchange. The crew didn’t fully use the radar and electronic charts and didn’t take fixes — and then lied about it.

“Fleet engaged in criminal conduct when shore-based supervisors directed the fabrication of false and forged documents to deceive investigators and hide its own culpability,†said John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division.

“In particular, a false berth-to-berth passage plan for the day of the crash was created after the incident at the direction of shore-side supervisors … with the knowledge of the ship’s master,†the Justice Department said in a statement. “Additionally, a ship officer falsified the ship’s official navigational chart to show fixes that were not actually recorded during the voyage. Other records including false passage checklists were also created after the fact.â€

Witnesses earlier testified that the Chinese crew had recently joined Cosco Busan and were on their first voyage with the vessel.

Fleet Management has promised to adopt a comprehensive plan to heighten training and voyage planning for ships trading in the United States. It will instruct masters in the right way to command vessels and provide classroom and shipboard navigation training for bridge officers. Fleet Management vessels sailing to the United States must create a voyage plan for navigating in each port.

Vikas Grewal, a recently appointed marine superintendent at Fleet Management, said the company declined comment on the case to Professional Mariner because further U.S. court activity is expected. The plea agreement, for example, was subject to approval by a District Court judge. Civil cases also are pending.

The pilot was originally supposed to begin his prison term in September, but he underwent foot surgery and the court delayed the sentence until a month later.

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff