Cota sentenced to 10 months in prison
Published: Friday, July 17, 2009 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 16, 2009 at 4:15 p.m.
The helmsman of a cargo ship that set off a major environmental disaster in the San Francisco Bay was sentenced Friday to 10 months in prison.
John Cota pleaded guilty in March to two misdemeanor environmental crimes of illegally discharging oil in the bay and killing thousands of birds.
Cota apologized to the court and to the"people of the Bay Area for the damage I have caused."
Cota's attorney, Jeff Bornstein, had asked U.S. District Judge Susan Illston to impose a two-month sentence.
Bornstein argued that his client wasn't the only person responsible for the Nov. 7, 2007, oil spill that poured more than 53,000 gallons of oil into the water after the 901-foot Cosco Busan struck a tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog. The spill killed 2,000 birds, fouled dozens of miles of coastline and cost commercial fishermen millions of dollars in lost revenue.
A poorly trained Chinese crew, language barriers and others factors beyond Cota's control contributed to the accident, Bornstein said.
"This was an accident, a chain of errors and lots of people played a role in it," Bornstein said.
Illston, however, said Cota was hired to guide the ship out of the San Francisco Bay because of his extensive knowledge of the region and should have known where the bridge was located.
"You have a structure that has not moved from its position for many, many years," she said.
The judge also agreed with prosecutors that Cota made several disastrously poor decisions while piloting the ship. Authorities have said he shouldn't have departed in extreme fog when pilots of six other large vessels decided not to, failed to have a discussion with the ship's master to review the transit plan and failed to notify the Coast Guard that the ship's radar was unreliable.
"I know there is a lot of blame to go around," Illston said."But, I think Capt. Cota was right in the middle of it."
About a dozen family and friends from Cota's hometown of Petaluma crowded into the courtroom to also urge the judge for a more lenient sentence than the 10 months demanded by federal prosecutors.
Teresa Barrett, Cota's wife, told the judge that the family has spent more than $500,000 on legal fees and faced even more financial punishment because of several lawsuits pending against Cota from fishermen and others seeking to recover expenses caused by the spill.
"We risk losing the only home our sons have known," she said before breaking down in tears.
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