According to the criminal information filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Cota was licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of California as a Bar Pilot. He was a member of the San Francisco Bar Pilots and had been employed in the San Francisco Bay since 1981. Pilots are licensed professionals who are responsible for navigating ships through challenging waters. In California, large ocean-going vessels are required to be piloted when entering or leaving port.
The criminal information alleges that on November 7, 2007, Cota negligently caused the discharge of approximately 58,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan in violation of the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. According to the charges, while piloting the ship from port in heavy fog, he failed to pilot a collision free course and failed to adequately review the proposed course with the Captain and crew on official navigational charts. Further, he failed to use the ship’s radar as he approached the Bay Bridge, use positional fixes or verify the ship’s position using official aids of navigation, throughout the voyage. According to the criminal information, these failures led to the Cosco Busan striking the bridge and spilling the oil.
As a result of the discharge of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan, approximately 2,000 birds died, including Brown Pelicans, Marbled Murrelets and Western Grebes. The Brown Pelican is a federally endangered species and the Marbled Murrelet is a federally threatened species and an endangered species under California law.
Cota is charged with one count of violating the CWA and one count of violating the MBTA. The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the CWA is one year in prison and a $100,000 fine, and the maximum penalty for a misdemeanor violation of the MBTA is 6 months in prison and a $15,000 fine. A criminal information is merely an accusation. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.
The investigation is ongoing and is being conducted by the Coast Guard Investigative Service, the EPA Criminal Investigation Division, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response.
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacey Geis of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, and David Joyce, Trial Attorney with the Justice Department’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division with the assistance of Ana Guerra.
Pursuant to the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, crime victims are afforded certain statutory rights including the opportunity to attend all public hearings and provide input to the prosecution. Those adversely impacted by the oil spill are encouraged to visit http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/can/community/notifications to learn more about the case and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.