The pilot who crashed the Cosco Busan cargo ship into the Bay Bridge in 2007, causing the worst oil spill in the bay in two decades, has sued the U.S. Coast Guard in an effort to regain his mariner's license so he can sail again.
Capt. John Cota 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 the ship's hull oiled 69 miles of shore, closed fisheries and killed more than 6,800 birds.
"He wants to get his license back and go back to work. He's healthy as can be," Cota's attorney, John Meadows, of Berkeley, said Monday.
In a lawsuit filed Friday afternoon in federal district court in Oakland, Cota, 65, of Petaluma, alleged that his "due process rights" were denied because the Coast Guard has refused to renew his license.
Shortly after the accident, the state Board of Pilot Commissioners began steps to revoke Cota's 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 -- remained valid. The Coast Guard took it a month after the spill, and it expired in 2010. When Cota attempted to renew it, Coast Guard officials refused.
If Cota were to recover 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.
Environmentalists said they support the Coast Guard's decision.
"He's shown that he didn't have the medical fitness or sound judgment to be sailing ships," said Deb Self, executive director of Baykeeper, a San Francisco nonprofit. "I don't think the bay can afford second chances."
Added David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay: "The public should be concerned that anyone with such a bad record might be put in charge of commercial ships."
For a while after the spill, Cota held an administrative job at a Bay Area tug boat company. A year ago, Meadows said he might be interested in working as a tug boat captain, although Meadows said Monday that Cota is now unemployed.
Cota's lawsuit alleges that when he surrendered his mariner's license to the Coast Guard in December, 2007, he signed an agreement that said it would be returned if he was found to be physically fit and met other pilot qualifications. After his family doctor examined him and provided a letter, the Coast Guard rejected it, saying he needed an independent doctor.
After he was examined by another doctor and provided a letter from the head of a sleep disorder clinic, the Coast Guard still refused renewal, the suit says, and cited concerns over Cota's taking Provigil, a medicine for sleep apnea. The Coast Guard issued a final denial Feb. 13, 2012.
The Coast Guard found 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.
Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell said the agency had no comment.
The head of the main shipping industry association in the Bay Area said he supports the outcome.
"I have faith in the Coast Guard, that they are doing their due diligence," said John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
Last month, another ship, the oil tanker Overseas Reymar, hit a tower of the Bay Bridge. That ship 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 Thursday to ban large ships from sailing near the Bay Bridge when there is less than half a mile visibility.
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 NTSB concluded the Cosco Busan accident 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; inadequate crew training; and a failure by the Coast Guard to warn Cota by radio that he was heading for the bridge.
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 Twitter.com/PaulRogersSJMN.