Guilty plea to San Francisco oil spill charges

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The pilot of a cargo ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay in November 2007 pleaded guilty on Friday to two criminal charges, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

John Cota gave the helm commands that caused the Cosco Busan to hit a tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog. The collision caused an oil spill that killed at least 2,000 birds and required a significant clean-up effort.

Cota pleaded guilty to negligently causing the fuel spill in violation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, a law enacted in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, and to violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act for the deaths of protected migratory birds, federal prosecutors said.

“Today’s guilty plea is a reminder that the Cosco Busan crash was not just an accident, but a criminal act,” John Cruden, acting assistant attorney general, said in a statement.

“This is not a case involving a mere mistake. The lesson here is that environmental stewards who abandon ship, act negligently and cause major environmental damage will be vigorously prosecuted,” Cruden said.

If U.S. District Court Judge Susan Illston accepts the plea terms, Cota will be sentenced to between two and ten months in prison and be fined between $3,000 to $30,000. His sentencing has been scheduled for June 19.