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Ship's owners, pilot sued over spilled oil

December 01, 2007|From the Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — The federal government Friday accused a pilot and the owners of the container ship Cosco Busan of breaking environmental laws when the ship struck a bridge support in San Francisco Bay, spilling 58,000 gallons of oil.

The Justice Department filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, alleging that the National Marine Sanctuary Act, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and the Park System Resource Protection Act were violated when the vessel ran into the support Nov. 7.

It names as defendants Regal Stone Ltd. and Fleet Management Ltd., both of which are listed as owners, operators and managers of the Cosco Busan. Both companies, according to the suit, are "believed to be headquartered in Hong Kong."

Also named was Capt. John Cota, who was at the helm when the collision took place, and Shipowners Insurance and Guaranty Co. Ltd., which insured the ship.

The government sought unspecified damages to compensate taxpayers for the federal response to the spill. The lawsuit said the sum of those damages "is not known and shall be established according to proof at the time of trial." It accused the defendants of "fault, negligence and breach of federal safety and operating regulations."

The government said the oil spill had affected the Gulf of the Farrallones National Marine Sanctuary, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Point Reyes National Seashore and other protected federal waters.

Bermuda-based Sigco, as the insurance company is known, was founded specifically to respond to claims under the 1990 pollution act, and the government's lawsuit said its liability may be capped by law.

Regal Stone and Fleet Management are liable "without limitation," the suit states.

Regal Stone has already been paying cleanup costs.

But the ship's insurance currently will cover only $39 million of the cleanup, a figure likely to be surpassed, a Justice Department official said on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing litigation.

The federal action is meant to force the ship owners to get more insurance coverage so they can afford the entire cost, whatever it totals, that official said.

Also Friday, the state Board of Pilot Commissioners suspended Cota's pilot license during the several investigations under way. The board said it was "protocol when there is reason to believe public interest requires it during an ongoing investigation," but said the suspension "should not be viewed as a prejudgment of pilot error."

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