Pilot in SF Oil Spill Pleads Not Guilty

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- The pilot of a container ship that spilled thousands of gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay last November pleaded not guilty on Friday to breaking two federal environmental laws.

John Cota, 60, was at the helm of the Cosco Busan when it struck a fender protecting a support tower beneath the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Nov. 7. The ship emptied 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, killing or injuring thousands of birds and closing more than a dozen beaches.

Cota, due back in court April 4, was charged Monday with misdemeanor counts of killing migratory birds and illegal dumping. He faces up to 18 months in jail and more than $100,000 in fines if convicted.

Cota declined to comment after the hearing. His attorney Jeffrey Bornstein said he is disappointed that prosecutors filed charges, especially since the National Transportation Safety Board has yet to complete its investigation.

"The decision to charge him criminally is misguided," Bornstein said outside court. "Capt. Cota feels terrible about what happened. He has grown up on this waterfront."

Prosecutors allege Cota failed to use the ship's radar as he approached the Bay Bridge; failed to adequately review the proposed course with the captain; and failed to use navigational aids that might have helped him avoid a disaster.

Cota is also named in a Justice Department lawsuit accusing him and the ship's owner, Hong Kong-based Regal Stone Ltd., of negligence and seeking compensation for the cleanup.

Some 2,000 birds died, including federally endangered brown pelicans and federally threatened marbled murrelets.

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