Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cosco Busan Oil Spill - Pilot Sentenced to 10 Months

In an amazingly stupid move, the Federal Prosecutor for Northern California sought an indictment of Capt. John Joseph Cota, the pilot who was taking the container ship Cosco Busan out of San Francisco Harbor on November 7, 2007 when it collided with the San Francisco Bay Bridge and spilled approximately 53,000 gallons of oil (~964 barrels) and killing an estimated 2,400 migratory birds including members of the following endangered and threatened species: Brown Pelicans and the Marbled Murrelet. This incident and course of action has now resulted in a criminal conviction as a result of a plea bargin. The DOJ's press release (full text here) states:

"..."The court’s sentence of John Cota should serve as a deterrent to shipping companies and mariners who think violating the environmental laws that protect our nation’s waterways will go undetected or unpunished," said Joseph P. Russoniello, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. "They will be vigorously prosecuted."

Prosecutors provided the court with a list of Cota’s errors that included the following:

- Captain Cota left in extreme fog that was so thick that the bow of the vessel was not visible from the bridge. Captain Cota made the decision to leave in the fog while the pilots of six other large commercial vessels decided not to depart in the heavy fog which was less than 0.5 nautical miles.

- Having made the decision to leave port in impenetrable fog, Captain Cota took no action to assure the fortification of the bridge or bow watch or review the passage plan with the master and crew of the Cosco Busan. In particular, Cota failed to have a master-pilot exchange to review the transit plan.

- Captain Cota has subsequently claimed that he found both radar unreliable, but he did not notify the master or the Coast Guard that a required piece of equipment needed to safely navigate the ship had failed. Meanwhile, the captured images of the radar retained on the ship’s computer show that the radar was fully operational.

- The tape recorded conversations from the ship’s bridge show that Captain Cota was confused regarding the operation of the electronic chart system upon which he chose to rely including the meaning of 2 red triangles that marked buoys marking the tower of the bridge that he eventually hit.

- At no time during the voyage after leaving the berth at 8:07 a.m. and prior to 8:30 a.m. did Captain Cota, or any of the ship’s crew, consult the ship’s official paper navigational chart or take a single positional fix. Captain Cota did not ask any crew member to take any fixes or verify the ship’s position despite the lack of visibility. After the incident, Cota told the Coast Guard he did not request fixes because it is like "driving your car out of a driveway."

Prosecutors also filed papers showing that Captain Cota had failed to disclose his medical conditions and prescription drug use on required annual forms submitted to the Coast Guard.

The discharge of heavy fuel oil from the Cosco Busan fouled 26 miles of shoreline, killed more than 2,400 birds of about 50 species, temporarily closed a fishery on the bay, and delayed the start of the crab-fishing season. Monetary damages to the bridge, ship and private parties were in the tens of millions of dollars. Clean-up costs have been estimated to exceed $70 million.

The birds killed include 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."

How this act and the DOJ's reaction helps anybody other then to be a sensationalistic, misapplication of the law is hard for anybody who thinks through how the ripples of these waves will play out is hard to imagine. Firstly while the press release wants to key on the lack of plotting a paper fix to note your position is pretty hard to understand - you do count on a pilot to take you through a harbor in a manner that is like "driving your car out of the driveway." Of course, one wonders about the judgement of Capt. Costa and his attorney, assuming he has one, for not being more formal and circumspect when answering questions and depositions, as well of course for deciding to enter a guilty plea to such a horrible set of charges.

I would have thought the Captain and his attorney would have wanted to ensure they had the right to appeal a verdict, etc. instead of pleading guilty. However given he has been a pilot in San Francisco since 1981, maybe he figured he'd plead guilty have his Licence Insurance pay a fine and retire? I don't know but now we have this result and here's what I think it means for everyday, normal middle-class Americans (please take note Congresswoman Pelosi, Senator Ried, President Obama and Vice President Biden).

Pilots in every port in the US will be very, very cautious about even consenting to think about moving a vessel in even moderate conditions of reduced visibility. They will no doubt have detailed checklists, particularly in Northwestern US Ports where the Northern CA DOJ and the Circuit of Appeals are the same as any that apply here. Those checklists will be completed prior to moving a ship, the result will be slower, more tedious passages into and out of those ports. In short SF Bay as well as Seattle/Tacoma just became less desirable places to bring a ship and her Cargo into. Expect cargoes to seek friendlier places to enter North America - can you say Vancouver? People will no doubt feel I'm being chicken little but bottom line will be a ripple that this starts that results in less commerce going though San Francisco in particular as well as ports near the border, particularly Sea-Tac given the proximity of Vancouver and things like NAFTA, etc.

For Mariners, we can expect licence insurance to increase markedly, and for shipping companies insurance and other costs will go up for voyages calling on US ports. Of course those costs will be passed down the line and in the end consumers will pay the costs. This will particularly occur on oil and petrochemicals.

Who cares about activist judges when you have "eco-terrorists" in the guise of Federal Prosecutors? It's easy to get folks riled up about careless mariners and insensitive money grubbing shipping companies, but the ease at which something can be emotionalized doesn't make it a smart or correct thing to do. Further, the sad truth it that a spill like this doesn't take foggy conditions to occur, sometimes accidents happen. When they do, prosecuting someone who is just trying to make a living and hasn't created the situation through acts of gross negligence, or with malice and forethought isn't in this blogger's opinion a smart thing to do. Interestingly, in the wake of the disaster, Senator Diane Feinstein has been trying to introduce legislation in response to this disaster that makes sense. Basically she wants to a) require, not give the option, the local USCG sector Commander to take control of shipping and control movements and speeds in a harbor during periods of adverse visibility; and b) require all ships - not just tankers, after a phase in period to be double hulled. Actions and responses like Senator Feinstein's are much more preferable to me to seeing a pilot looked up for 10 months for something like this accident.


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