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$44.4-million settlement reached in San Francisco Bay oil spill

September 19, 2011 |  1:01 pm

An oil-soaked bird is treated at a rescue center.

Local, state and federal officials on Monday announced a $44.4-million civil settlement with the owners and operators of a container ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of oil into San Francisco Bay after striking a tower of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy morning fog.

The 2007 spill killed thousands of birds, damaged the bay’s herring spawn, sullied miles of coastal habitat and closed regional waters and beaches to fishing and recreation.

"This bay is the jewel of the San Francisco region and the Cosco Busan oil spill left a lasting scar across our water, natural habitats and wildlife," California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in a statement. "This settlement will allow all of these precious resources to be restored to their original health and beauty."

The settlement comes in the form of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree negotiated with Regal Stone Limited and Fleet Management Ltd., the owners and operators of the M/V Cosco Busan. The state, the city and county of San Francisco and the city of Richmond also are parties to the decree.

The settlement includes funds for natural resource restoration, penalties and reimbursement to governmental entities for spill response costs.

The spill released heavy fuel oil, also known as "bunker oil," into San Francisco Bay. An investigation found that John Cota, the ship’s pilot, was under the influence of prescription drugs that had impaired his ability to properly use the ship's radar system and electronic maps. The investigation also found that the U.S. Coast Guard had failed to warn Cota that the ship was on course to hit the tower.

Cota was sentenced in 2009 to 10 months in federal prison. The ship's operator, Hong Kong-based Fleet Management, pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor charge of water pollution and two felony counts of filing false documents with the government to conceal its actions. The judge in that case ordered the company at that time to pay $8 million to the government and $2 million to a fund for environmental projects in the bay.

The civil settlement was announced Monday at a news conference on Treasure Island under brilliant blue skies with the scenic bay and bridge as a backdrop.


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-- Lee Romney in San Francisco

Photo: A bird is cleaned at a rescue center after the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill. Credit: Michael Macor / Associated Press