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Fleet Management offers guilty plea for Cosco Busan mishap

Fleet Management offers guilty plea for Cosco Busan mishap

San Francisco Fleet Management, the operator of the Cosco Busan that struck the Bay Bridge 18 months ago, yesterday offered to plead guilty to two misdemeanor criminal charges and said it was partly to blame for the spill of 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay, writes the San Francisco Chronicle.

The guilty plea, if accepted, would also expose Fleet Management Ltd. to damages for the costs of the November 2007 spill and cleanup. The company did not mention the felony charges it faces for allegedly falsifying documents to obstruct the federal investigation.

The 901-foot container ship Cosco Busan hit the second tower of the bridge west of Yerba Buena Island in a heavy fog the morning of Nov. 7, 2007. Oil from the spill reached the bay shoreline and ocean beaches in Marin and San Mateo counties and killed more than 2,000 birds.

The pilot, John Cota, pleaded guilty in March to two misdemeanor charges of operating the vessel negligently, polluting the waters and killing birds. His plea agreement calls for a prison sentence of two to 10 months and a fine between $3,000 and $30,000.

Last week, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report saying one cause of the accident was Cota's use of prescription drugs that impaired his thinking. The board also said the ship's captain, Mao Cai Sun, had failed to prepare a navigation plan with Cota and had supervised him inadequately as the ship went off course.

In addition, the board said, Fleet Management had barely trained its brand-new crew on safety. The company's proposed guilty plea said Sun had acted negligently by failing to review Cota's intended route, which would have allowed him to recognize and overrule flawed commands.

"That negligence, even though concurrent with the negligence of others, was a (legal) cause of the discharge of a harmful quantity of fuel oil," the company's lawyers said in the federal court filing.

Fleet Management has also been charged with six felonies for allegedly concealing its navigation plans for the Cosco Busan and fabricating documents after the spill to interfere with the investigation. Its trial is scheduled for Sept. 14.

Fleet Management offered to plead no contest to all eight charges last fall, which would have subjected it to criminal fines but could not have been used as an admission of responsibility in damage suits. U.S. District Judge Susan Illston rejected the offer, saying the company was trying to blame everyone but itself.  [12/05/09]