02/11/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

John Cota, Ship Pilot Blamed For 2007 San Francisco Oil Spill, Sues Coast Guard To Get License Back

Capt. John Cota, who was blamed for causing the worst oil spill in San Francisco Bay in two decades when he crashed the cargo ship Cosco Busan into a tower of the Bay Bridge in 2007, has sued the U.S. Coast Guard in an effort to regain his mariner's license so he can sail again.

Cota, 65, of Petaluma, pleaded guilty to water-pollution violations and served 10 months in prison after investigators concluded he was traveling too fast in heavy fog, was impaired by prescription drugs and ignored safety precautions while working as the ship's pilot during the Nov. 7, 2007 crash. The bunker fuel that poured from a gash in the ship's hull oiled 69 miles of shore, closed fisheries and killed more than 6,800 birds.

Afterward, the state Board of Pilot Commissioners found Cota at fault and began steps to revoke his pilot's license. Instead, he voluntarily retired as a pilot on Oct. 1, 2008, and now draws a pension of $228,864 a year, funded through fees on the shipping industry.

But Cota's other key sailing credential -- his merchant marine license, issued by the Coast Guard -- technically remained valid. The Coast Guard took possession of it after the spill, and it expired in 2010. When Cota attempted to renew it, Coast Guard officials refused, and finally, after a drawn-out process of appeals, issued a final denial last February.

In a lawsuit filed late Friday afternoon in federal district court in Oakland against the U.S. Department of Homeland

Security, the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Robert J. Papp, Jr., Cota alleged his civil rights had been violated and that his "due process rights" were denied when he was not allowed to renew.

If Cota were to recover it his mariner's license, he could return to work sailing professionally in the bay or other places as a captain, first mate or other position on commercial ships, although not as a pilot helping other captains guide ships.

"Capt. Cota still has some work in him. He is a healthy man," said his attorney, John Meadows, of Berkeley, in an interview with the Mercury News last year. "He has full intentions of going back to work, either as a tugboat captain or something else."

In response to a federal Freedom of Information Act request last year by the Mercury News, the Coast Guard confirmed that it issued a final denial Feb. 13, 2012 to Cota's appeal.

The Coast Guard found that Cota "did not meet the medical standards and the professional qualifications requirements for renewal." Coast Guard officials also cited his criminal conviction in the Cosco Busan spill and his role in the grounding of another ship, the Pioneer, near Antioch in 2006.

Last year, Meadows said Cota has been working administratively for a tug boat company and feels he has been denied justice. He has not given interviews since the accident, which made national headlines.

"Capt. Cota is not giving up," Meadows said at the time.

Last month, another ship hit a tower of the Bay Bridge. That ship, the 751-foot Overseas Reymar, was an empty oil tanker that had unloaded millions of gallons of oil the night before at the Shell refinery in Martinez. No oil spilled in the water. Both accidents occurred in heavy fog, and officials of the bay's Harbor Safety Committee are expected later this week to put in place new rules that would limit large ships from sailing near the Bay Bridge when there is less than half a mile visibility.

Cota had worked as a bar pilot in San Francisco Bay since 1981. Pilots are local mariners who board oil tankers, freighters and other large ships and stand on the bridge of the vessels, helping captains maneuver. Because of the high level of risk -- some ships are the size of the Exxon Valdez and come within a few dozen yards of the Golden Gate Bridge towers, Alcatraz and other hazards -- shipping companies are required under state law to pay pilots richly. Pilots now earn $451,000 a year.

In 2008, the National Transportation Safety Board found that Cota had a drunken driving conviction, a history of alcohol abuse and prescriptions for at least nine medications, including Valium; Vicodin; Zoloft for depression; Ativan, an anti-anxiety drug; Provigil for sleep disorders; Imitrex for migraines; and Darvon for pain.

The Cosco Busan's collision with a Bay Bridge tower tore a 211-foot gash in the Hong Kong cargo ship, spilling bunker fuel. The NTSB concluded it was caused by Cota's "degraded cognitive performance from his use of impairing prescription medications."

Other causes included a lack of communication between Cota and the ship's Chinese captain; failure of the ship's operator to adequately train the crew; and a failure by the Coast Guard to warn Cota by radio that he was heading for the bridge. The Coast Guard also didn't properly evaluate him medically before renewing his license in previous years, the NTSB found.

The accident was the largest oil spill in the bay since 1988, when a tank at the Martinez Shell refinery ruptured, dumping 400,000 gallons of crude. Last year, the Cosco Busan's owner, Regal Stone Ltd., and its operator, Fleet Management Ltd., both of Hong Kong, agreed to pay $44 million to settle the civil case.

Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at ___