Capt. John Cota, who crashed the Cosco Busan cargo ship into the Bay Bridge in 2007, causing the worst oil spill in San Francisco Bay in two decades, has lost his battle to restart his sailing career.
On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White dismissed Cota's lawsuit against the Coast Guard, rejecting his attempt to force the Coast Guard to give him back a mariner's license so he can sail again.
Cota, 66, 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 crash.
The 53,569 gallons of bunker fuel that poured from the hull of the 902-foot container ship oiled 69 miles of shore, closed fisheries and killed more than 6,800 birds.
In a lawsuit filed in February in federal district court in Oakland, Cota alleged that his "due process rights" were denied because the Coast Guard has refused to renew his license.
"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, told this newspaper at the time.
Neither Cota nor Meadows could be reached Monday. Michael Pyle, who defended the Coast Guard for the U.S. Attorney's office in San Jose, said both agencies are pleased with the outcome. Environmentalists echoed those sentiments.
"I think it's encouraging that the court backed the Coast Guard's decision to keep unsafe pilots off the high seas," said David Lewis, executive director of Save the Bay, in Oakland. "The public needs the Coast Guard to protect not only the safety of ships, but the bay that they are sailing on. The Cosco Busan was a crucial wake up call."
Shortly after the accident, California's Board of Pilot Commissioners began steps to revoke Cota's pilot's license. Instead, he voluntarily retired as a pilot in 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 as a captain, first mate or other position on commercial ships, although not as a pilot helping other captains guide large ships in and out of the bay.
For a while after the spill, Cota held an administrative job at a Bay Area tug boat company. Two years ago, Meadows said Cota might be interested in working as a tug boat captain.
Cota's lawsuit alleged 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 said, and cited concerns over Cota's taking Provigil, a medicine for sleep apnea.
In its final denial in 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.
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.
In 2011, 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.