SAN FRANCISCO -- Companies responsible for a 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill that occurred when a ship slammed into a bridge agreed Monday to pay $44.4 million toward the cleanup and damage to the environment, including the deaths of thousands of birds.
The proposed settlement is the final chapter in the nearly four-year legal saga involving lawsuits against Regal Stone Ltd., which owned the ship that hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, 2007, and Fleet Management Ltd., which operated it.
The deal still requires approval by a federal judge after a 30-day public comment period.
"This settlement resolves all claims," said Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno, the Department of Justice's highest-ranking environmental prosecutor. "What you are seeing here ... is finality."
Moreno said the settlement is the largest of its kind, resolving a lawsuit filed under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act passed after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska.
Several lawsuits were filed under the act against BP following the massive 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill off the Gulf Coast.
With San Francisco Bay serving as a backdrop on a clear, sunny day, the settlement in the California case was announced on Treasure Island by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and other officials.
"With this settlement, we are seeing to it that those responsible for the spill are held accountable and that they pay their share for restoring and improving our precious natural resources and public lands," Salazar said.
Fleet Management has already paid a $10 million criminal fine, and the ship's pilot, John Cota, served a 10-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to misdemeanor pollution charges. Commercial fishermen were paid a little more than $3 million after crab fishing was halted in the weeks after the spill.
What stands as one of the region's worst environmental disasters began on a foggy morning when most commercial ships decided to stay docked until visibility became better. Cota, a local pilot hired for his knowledge of the bay, decided to take the 900-foot container ship Cosco Busan out to sea on its way to South Korea and struck a tower of the bridge shortly after casting off from Oakland.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded last year that Cota was medically unfit; the ship's Chinese captain was ineffective; and poor communications between the two were the primary cause of the crash.
More than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil poured into the bay, killing more than 6,800 birds, harming herring spawn that winter and closing beaches to swimmers for weeks. Some of the bird species, which reproduce slowly, haven't fully recovered.
"The Cosco Busan oil spill polluted the bay, killed wildlife, and cost bay area residents millions of dollars in economic opportunity," Harris said. "This settlement properly compensates the public affected by the oil spill and will fund the environmental restoration and recreational projects necessary to undo the damage done by the spill."
The cities of San Francisco and Richmond, both of which have significant coastlines along the bay, will be reimbursed for the cost of their immediate responses.
City Attorney Dennis Herrera said San Francisco will receive $3.6 million of the settlement costs for its response and other expenses. The city also will benefit from the many conservation and restoration projects planned with the lion's share of the settlement.
Richmond will receive $669,000.
Nearly $32 million of the settlement will be used to fund restoration projects, including $18.8 million for recreational improvements.
Sarah Swenty of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife said a committee will be formed to determine which projects receive funding.