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Sunday, December 17, 2017

Cosco Busan bridge spill claims finally settled

Posted to Far East Maritime (by on September 21, 2011

The sorry saga of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridge collision has come to an end.

On a foggy November night in 2007, the Cosco Busan hit the bridge with its port bow, spilling 200,000 litres of fuel oil into the San Francisco Bay.

It was one of the worst oil spills in California. Far more destructive than organic crude oil, the fuel sludge coated sensitive beaches and habitats of local wildlife and generated the oil-soaked bird images that give the shipping industry its bad name.

Oil from the spill washed up on more than 100 miles of beaches and killed almost 7,000 birds. It was an environmental disaster and evoked fury from the public to environmental agencies to the government.

This week, Cosco Busan’s Hong Kong ship management company Fleet Management, and the ship owner, Regal Stone, agreed to pay US$44 million to settle environmental claims and penalties in a deal with the US Department of Justice and other regulatory authorities.

The final step will be to have the deal approved by a federal court, and when that happens it will resolve all outstanding claims for damage to natural resources and the resulting clean up. The ship’s insurers will pick up the tab.

While owned by Cosco, the ship was chartered to Korean shipping company Hanjin. Fleet Management, which was sold last year, was fined US$10 million after pleading guilty to criminal charges that some of its crew falsified documents after the collision.

But the pressure for justice ensured that justice would not be done. Punitive fines for ship owners and even refusing port access for their vessels is one thing, but imprisonment is a step too far. San Francisco Bay pilot John Cota was overseeing the navigation of the ship when it hit the bridge, and found himself jailed for 10 months.

Cota was found criminally negligent for taking the ship out in thick fog and ignoring danger signals. Negligent, sure, but criminally negligent? That’s hard to swallow.

His name joins a growing list of seafarers who have been unfairly jailed after oil spills whose highly photogenic consequences have seafarers lynched in the court of public opinion and jailed by courts of law.

The penalties should be severe for dereliction of duty, but jail time is taking it all a bit too far.

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