Pilot Talks With Lawyers About San Francisco Bay Oil Spill

Tuesday, November 13th 2007, 6:56 am
By: News On 6

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A lawyer for the ship pilot under investigation in San Francisco Bay's biggest oil spill in nearly two decades said his client didn't immediately realize the severity of the crash that led to the leak.

Capt. John Cota was helming the cargo ship when it struck a bridge support last week, opening a 90-foot gash in the hull that dumped 58,000 gallons into the bay, fouling miles of coastline and killing dozens of shorebirds.

``He has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn't much damage,'' said John Meadows, an attorney for Cota.

At the time, Cota had radioed authorities to report the vessel had ``touched'' the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

``Traffic, we just touched the delta span,'' Cota said, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing criminal probe. Cota was referring to one of four supports beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge's western section.

Federal prosecutors investigating the incident are focusing on problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship's bridge at the time. Among other things, the ship was under new ownership and management, and the crew's experience on the vessel appears to have been limited, officials said.

Investigators want to know if the ship's pilot played down the incident, preventing authorities from relaying accurate information to the public.

``The comments made or the actions taken by individuals are all things that they could be held accountable for,'' Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the top Coast Guard officer in California, said Monday.

Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a Coast Guard spokesman, said ``one of the aspects of the investigation is, were the reports made accurate'' after the collision.

Scott Schools, the acting U.S. attorney for Northern California, confirmed that his office was asked to investigate, but declined to elaborate.

Crew members were questioned on board the vessel, the Cosco Busan. Bone said the owners and operators of the ship would unquestionably face civil penalties.

``I know we have a civil penalty just because we have a spill,'' he said. ``There will at least be a civil penalty action, if not a criminal.''

Darrell Wilson, a representative for Hong Kong-based Regal Stone, which owns the Cosco Busan, said the company was eager to hear the results of the investigation.

``From the beginning of the incident, Regal Stone has come forward and been very proactive and engaged with law enforcement officials,'' Wilson said. ``We take our job of environmental stewardship very seriously.''

The type of oil that spilled _ so-called bunker fuel, that is sticky, packed with pollutants and slow to break down _ is an ecological nightmare for the water, say environmentalists.

The spill inspired the group Friends of the Earth to ask Congress to ban the use of bunker fuel.

``Bunker fuel is the dirtiest fuel on the planet,'' said Teri Shore, campaign director for the marine program at Friends of the Earth, which has started a petition drive seeking a ban.

Bunker fuel is a byproduct of oil refining, a process that separates lighter, cleaner, more commercially valuable liquids like gasoline and kerosene.

Its main advantage to the shipping industry is that it's cheap _ a cost-effective option for massive ship engines can burn fuels other engines can't use.

But if bunker fuel spills, it gums up beaches, marshes and other ecosystems. Animals mistake it for food or ingest it as they try to clean their coats, and the oil breaks through the waterproof fur or feathers that keep them dry, exposing them to hypothermia, said Gary Shigenaka, with the emergency response division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.