Ship that spilled oil in SF Bay blames US

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SAN FRANCISCO – A container ship’s owner blames the U.S. government for a major San Francisco Bay oil spill last year because the ship’s pilot was granted a license despite a history of drug and alcohol abuse.

A lawsuit filed earlier by the Justice Department claims the owner and the pilot of the Cosco Busan broke environmental laws when the ship struck a bridge support and spilled 53,000 gallons of oil in the bay.

But the response Hong Kong-based Regal Stone filed Thursday argues that the U.S. government caused the spill by its “gross negligence and willful misconduct.”

The counterclaims draw heavily on media and investigative revelations about pilot Capt. John Cota’s past. Among the disclosures cited by Regal Stone is the fact, first disclosed by The Associated Press in January, that Cota had a sleep disorder and was on prescription medication to ward off drowsiness, as well as Valium.

The National Transportation Safety Board disclosed in April a lengthy list of prescription drugs Cota had taken, and said he had a 1999 DUI conviction. Regal Stone’s counterclaim asserts, without elaboration, that Cota had a second DUI conviction in 1971. A lawyer for Cota said he was unaware of that purported earlier conviction.

“Pilot Cota was medically unfit and incompetent to perform the duties required by his United States Coast Guard license,” Regal Stone’s filing states.

The ship owner argues that Cota was impaired by his medical condition and medications and that the Coast Guard knew or should have known his medical situation. The filing also blames California authorities who issued a state license to Cota and doctors who concluded he was fit for duty.

Cota has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges of lying to the Coast Guard about his medical record. A trial date has not been set.

Andrew Ames, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined to comment.

Two spokesmen for Regal Stone did not return phone calls Friday afternoon.

The federal lawsuit alleged that the crash violated the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Park System Resource Protection Act. It accused the defendants of “fault, negligence and breach of federal safety and operating regulations.”

The government lawsuit seeks unspecified damages to compensate taxpayers for the federal response to the spill. Regal Stone’s counterclaim seeks to offset the full value of the damages.

Regal Stone said the total price tag of the cleanup and other costs will exceed $60 million.

The Justice Department has until early August to respond to the counterclaims.

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