WASHINGTON— Fleet Management Ltd., a Hong Kong-based ship management firm, pleaded guilty today to a criminal violation of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 for its role in negligently causing the discharge of more than 50,000 gallons of fuel oil into San Francisco Bay from the Cosco Busan when the vessel struck the San Francisco Bay Bridge in dense fog on Nov. 7, 2007. Fleet Management also pleaded guilty today to felony obstruction of justice and false statement charges for creating false and forged documents after the crash at the direction of shore-based supervisors with an intent to deceive the U.S. Coast Guard.
Today’s guilty pleas were made as part of a plea agreement with the government that is subject to approval by Judge Susan Illston of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. If the plea terms are approved by the Court, Fleet has agreed to pay a total $10 million criminal penalty. Of this amount, $2 million would be devoted to fund marine environmental projects in San Francisco Bay.
The plea agreement, should the court accept it, also calls for Fleet to implement a comprehensive compliance plan that would include heightened training and voyage planning for ships engaged in trade in the United States. The training will focus on better preparing masters for command of Fleet’s vessels, providing classroom and shipboard navigation training to those who navigate Fleet’s vessels, and ensuring that all Fleet vessels calling in U.S. ports create a thorough plan for how they will navigate in those ports. The new training and voyage planning requirements will be subject to auditing and the court’s supervision.
“This criminal prosecution emphasizes that vessel managers have the responsibility to train and supervise its crews and to follow required procedures,” said Joseph P. Russoniello, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California. “Fleet failed to meet its obligation under international law to ensure the crew was adequately trained on navigation procedures and equipment. Vessel operators cannot abdicate their responsibilities to ensure safety and environmental protection without suffering serious consequences.”
“Today’s guilty plea by Fleet, combined with the recent sentencing of the ship’s pilot, sends a signal to the maritime industry that the government recognizes that navigation of large vessels is a serious undertaking and that those who fail to adequately train, execute and supervise their responsibilities will be held accountable,” said John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Fleet engaged in criminal conduct when shore-based supervisors directed the fabrication of false and forged documents to deceive investigators and hide its own culpability.”
As part of the plea agreement, Fleet Management admitted “that it was a cause of a discharge of a harmful quantity of oil into the navigable waters of the United States, that it acted negligently, and that its negligence was a proximate cause of the discharge of oil into San Francisco Bay on Nov. 7, 2007.” According to the factual statement signed by Fleet, the crew of the vessel:
- was not adequately familiar with certain ship-specific navigational equipment,
- did not engage in a berth-to-berth passage planning process or prepare written berth-to-berth passage plans,
- did not conduct an adequate Master – Pilot exchange of information,
- did not fully utilize or operate the ship’s radar and electronic chart system, and
- did not take fixes during the voyage.
In pleading guilty, Fleet admitted that after the ship hit the Bay Bridge, it concealed ship records and created materially false, fictitious and forged documents with an intent to influence the Coast Guard’s investigation. In particular, a false berth-to-berth passage plan for the day of the crash was created after the incident at the direction of shore-side supervisors known as superintendents and with the knowledge of the ship’s master. Additionally, a ship officer falsified the ship’s official navigational chart to show fixes that were not actually recorded during the voyage. Other records including false passage planning checklists were also created after the fact.
Sentencing has been scheduled for Dec. 11, 2009 at 11:00 a.m. PT.
The pilot of the Cosco Busan, Captain John Cota, was recently sentenced to 10 months in prison, one year of supervised release and 200 hours of community service for his role in causing the Cosco Busan collision and discharge of oil and deaths of migratory birds.
The collision caused a gash measuring approximately 150 feet long by 12 feet high on the port side of the ship, puncturing two of the ship’s fuel tanks and damaging the fendering system on the Delta tower of the bridge, and resulting in a significant environmental clean-up. At least 2,000 migratory birds died, including Brown Pelicans, Marbled Murrelets and Western Grebes. The Brown Pelican is a federally endangered species and the Marbled Murrelet is a federally threatened species and an endangered species under California law.
The criminal investigation was conducted by the Coast Guard Investigative Service; the EPA Criminal Investigation Division; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Silicon Valley Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory; and the California Department of Fish and Game, Office of Spill Prevention and Response. The investigation also received technical assistance from other Coast Guard offices including District 11 Legal Office, Sector San Francisco, Office of Investigations and Analysis, Office of Maritime and International Law, Office of Vessel Activities, Electronics Support Unit, Alameda and the Marine Safety Laboratory. In announcing the plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney and Assistant Attorney General thanked federal and state investigators and offices for their assistance in the prosecution.
The criminal case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jonathan Schmidt and Stacey Geis, and Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Tribolet of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California, and Richard A. Udell, Senior Trial Attorney with the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section.
Under the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, crime victims are afforded certain statutory rights including the opportunity to attend all public hearings and provide input to the prosecution. Those adversely impacted by the oil spill are encouraged to visit http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/can/community/Notifications to learn more about the case and the Crime Victims’ Rights Act.