Cosco Busan pilot John Cota sues Coast Guard to get license back

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 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 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, 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 tugboat company. A year ago, Meadows said he might be interested in working as a tugboat 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.

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