Ship pilot charged in San Francisco oil spill

WASHINGTON, March 17 Mon Mar 17, 2008 4:02pm EDT

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WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - The pilot of a container ship that hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge last year and spilled 58,000 gallons of oil was charged on Monday with violating federal pollution laws.

John Cota, who was licensed to navigate ships through the bay's challenging waters, negligently caused the discharge that killed 2,000 birds including endangered Brown Pelicans, the Department of Justice announced.

His attorney responded that the criminal charges were premature and that a federal safety investigation was continuing.

Cota was charged with one violation each of the Clean Water Act and Migratory Bird Act. If convicted, he faces fines or sentences of up to 18 months in prison and.

Cota was piloting the container ship Costa Buscan when it struck the Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, 2007.

"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," the Justice Department said.

Cota's attorney, Jeff Bornstein, called the charges regrettable and unfortunate.

"Captain Cota is a qualified, experienced pilot, who has worked on the San Francisco Bay for almost 27 years. He literally has safely assisted thousands of ships in and out of the Bay throughout his career," Bornstein said in a statement.

"We strongly believe that once all of the evidence is heard, a jury will find in Captain Cota's favor," he said.

(Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Philip Barbara)

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