Ship's Pilot Did Not Immediately Notice Oil Spill

The harbor pilot under investigation for San Francisco Bay's biggest oil spill in 20 years did not immediately realize the severity of the crash that led to the leak, his lawyer has said.

Capt. John Cota was in charge when the Cosco Busan struck a bridge support last week, opening a 90-foot gash in the hull that dumped 58,000 gallons into the bay, fouling miles of coastline.

"He has told me you could hardly feel anything on the ship and he must have assumed from that that there wasn't much damage," said John Meadows, an attorney for Cota.

At the time, Cota had radioed authorities to report the vessel had "touched" the bridge, according to an official with knowledge of the investigation.

Federal prosecutors investigating the incident are focusing on problems involving management and communication between the officers on the ship's bridge at the time. Among other things, the ship was under new ownership and management, and the crew's experience on the vessel appears to have been limited, officials said.

Investigators want to know if the ship's pilot played down the incident, preventing authorities from relaying accurate information to the public.

"The comments made or the actions taken by individuals are all things that they could be held accountable for," Rear Adm. Craig Bone, the top Coast Guard officer in California, said Monday.

Sr. Chief Petty Officer Keith Alholm, a Coast Guard spokesman, said "one of the aspects of the investigation is, were the reports made accurate" after the collision.

Scott Schools, the acting U.S. attorney for Northern California, confirmed that his office was asked to investigate, but declined to elaborate.

Cosco Busan crew members were questioned on board the vessel. Bone said the owners and operators of the ship would unquestionably face civil penalties.

"I know we have a civil penalty just because we have a spill," he said. "There will at least be a civil penalty action, if not a criminal."

Darrell Wilson, a representative for Hong Kong-based Regal Stone, which owns the Cosco Busan, said the company was eager to hear the results of the investigation.

"From the beginning of the incident, Regal Stone has come forward and been very proactive and engaged with law enforcement officials," Wilson said. "We take our job of environmental stewardship very seriously."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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