Companies agree to pay $44.4M for '07 SF Bay spill

By PAUL ELIAS | September 19, 2011 | 5:25 PM EDT

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The companies responsible for the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill agreed on Monday to pay $44.4 million for the cleanup costs and the damage done to the environment, including the death of thousands of birds.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, California Attorney General Kamala Harris and other officials announced the proposed settlement of several lawsuits filed against Regal Stone Ltd., which owned the ship that slammed into the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on Nov. 7, 2007, and Fleet Management Ltd., which operated it.

The proposed settlement, which still requires a federal judge's approval after a 30-day public comment period, is the final chapter of a nearly four-year legal saga of lawsuits and criminal indictments.

"This settlement resolve all claims," said Assistant Attorney General Ignacia Moreno, the Department of Justice's highest ranking environmental prosecutor. "What you are seeing here ... is finality."

Fleet Management has already paid a $10 million criminal fine and the ship's pilot John Cota served a 10-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to misdemeanor pollution charges. Commercial fisherman were paid a little more than $3 million after crab fishing was halted in the weeks after the spill.

One of the region's worst environmental disasters began on a foggy morning when most commercial ships decided to stay docked until visibility became better. Cota, a local pilot hired for his knowledge of the bay, decided to take the 900-foot container ship Cosco Busan out to sea and struck a tower of the bridge shortly after casting off.

More than 53,000 gallons of fuel oil poured into the bay, killing more than 6,800 birds, harming the herring spawn that winter, and closing beaches to swimmers for weeks. Some of the bird species, which reproduce slowly, haven't fully recovered, government officials said.

The money will be distributed to several cities that responded immediately to the spill.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera said San Francisco will receive $3.6 million of the settlement costs of responding to the spill. Herrera said San Francisco will also benefit from the many conversation and restoration projects planned with the lion's share of the settlement. Nearly $32 million of the settlement will be used to fund restoration projects, including $18.8 million for recreational improvements.