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$44.4-million settlement reached in San Francisco Bay oil spill

Local, state and federal officials reach the settlement with the owners and operators of the container ship Cosco Busan, which spilled 53,000 gallons of oil after striking the Bay Bridge in heavy fog in 2007.

September 20, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • The Cosco Busan oil spill killed or injured thousands of birds, including this one, shown at Fort Baker cove in Sausalito.
The Cosco Busan oil spill killed or injured thousands of birds, including… (Frederic Larson, San Francisco…)

Reporting from San Francisco — Local, state and federal officials on Monday announced a $44.4-million civil settlement with the owners and operators of a container ship that spilled 53,000 gallons of oil after striking the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in heavy fog.

The Nov. 7, 2007, spill killed thousands of birds, damaged San Francisco Bay's herring spawn, sullied miles of coastal habitat and closed regional waters and beaches to fishing and recreation.

"The Cosco Busan oil spill left a lasting scar across our water, natural habitats and wildlife," California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris said in announcing the deal, which will fund extensive ecological restoration.

"We regret that the accident occurred and deeply appreciate all those who contributed to the response," said Darrell Wilson, a spokesman for vessel owner Regal Stone Ltd. He declined to comment specifically on the settlement.

The agreement is the largest reached under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, enacted in response to the Exxon Valdez spill, officials said. It comes in the form of a U.S. Justice Department consent decree negotiated with Regal Stone and Fleet Management Ltd., the operator of the Cosco Busan. The ship's pilot, John Cota, also was a defendant; the city and county of San Francisco, the city of Richmond and the state are parties to the decree.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — who along with other officials announced the settlement on Treasure Island, with the sparkling bay at their backs — said that the "four short years" it took to come to an agreement was remarkable, given that natural-resource cases depend on scientific findings and often "take on a life of decades."

The decree is expected to be formalized by a U.S. district judge after a 30-day comment period. As written, it includes $36.8 million to assess and remediate damage and a $1.25-million penalty to be paid to the state. The remainder will reimburse spill response costs.

The damaged ship released heavy fuel oil into the bay, soiling what Assistant U.S. Atty. Gen. Ignacia Moreno said was the largest estuary on North America's Pacific Coast, as well as "a recreational resource for millions."

The draft plan to deal with the environmental damage estimated that the spill killed 6,849 birds, affected up to 29% of that winter's herring spawn, oiled 3,367 acres of shoreline and resulted in the loss of more than 1 million "recreational user-days."

Proposed remediation projects include restoration of eelgrass and native oyster beds in the bay and creation of grebe nesting habitat as far north as Tule Lake, near the Oregon border.

The settlement resolves all litigation pertaining to the spill, Moreno said, and follows criminal prosecutions.

Cota, who was determined to be under the influence of prescription drugs at the time of the accident, pleaded guilty to negligence and in 2009 was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison. Last year, Fleet Management Ltd. pleaded guilty to charges of water pollution and filing false documents and was ordered to pay $8 million to the government and $2 million for environmental projects in San Francisco Bay.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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