The Coast Guard didn't know for nine months about a DUI conviction against the pilot of the freighter that caused a giant oil spill in the San Francisco Bay last fall.
Under agency regulations that remain in effect, the pilot, Capt. John Cota, didn't have to disclose the February 1999 conviction until his mariner's license was up for its regular five-year renewal. That wasn't until the following November, according to testimony at a congressional hearing Thursday.
At that point Cota disclosed the conviction and surrendered his mariner's license for a short period while completing an Alcoholics
By January 2000 he was deemed physically fit to start piloting ships again.
Lawmakers questioned why it wasn't mandatory for pilots to disclose such convictions immediately, get treatment and then be monitored for compliance.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chairs the House Transportation subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, noted that a pilot could be convicted of drunken driving right after getting his mariner's license renewed and not have to report it for more than four years.
"Do you think that's right?" Cummings asked Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno. "It seems like it just goes against what you're trying to accomplish here."
"It does concern me that that could happen. Unfortunately the way the regulations are constructed that's the system we have," Salerno replied.
Coast Guard officials requested that Cota surrender his license again last December after a closer look at his medical file revealed that in addition to an apparent diagnosis of alcoholism he took prescription pills to treat ailments from sleep apnea to glaucoma to depression.
By then Cota had already piloted a 900-foot container ship into a support pillar of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The Nov. 7 crash in heavy fog poured 53,000 gallons of oil into the bay's fragile ecosystem.
Cota has pleaded not guilty to federal civil charges.
Marine pilots don't work for the Coast Guard but are licensed by the agency and board ships in local waters to navigate them in and out of port.
The average San Francisco bar pilot was paid $450,673 in 2007, according to pilots association financial records audited by an outside accounting firm and released last week.
The Coast Guard instituted new rules even before the Cosco Busan crash to more closely monitor pilots' medical fitness, but Salerno said after the hearing that there was no current proposal to require mandatory reporting of drug or alcohol convictions.
Cummings said that should happen.
The debate came as the Homeland Security Department released an audit that said that none of three accident investigators sent to the site of last November's spill had fulfilled all the qualifying requirements for their jobs.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat, called that "disconcerting."
Resulting problems including failure to conduct timely drug and alcohol tests could impede attempts to determine the probable cause of the accident, the report said, though the errors were mostly later corrected or didn't appear too consequential.
Salerno told lawmakers he also was disturbed by the findings about the failure to dispatch fully qualified personnel, which showed Coast Guard rules hadn't been followed, and he promised to correct the problems.
The inspector general report did address some of the more controversial charges made in the wake of the accident.
Contradicting claims made by Cota's attorneys, the audit concluded that the Coast Guard's Vessel Traffic Service could not have prevented the accident.
The report said VTS personnel fulfilled their duties when they questioned Cota about his course but didn't warn him he was about to crash.
The report also said that though the size of the spill was initially wildly underestimated at 140 gallons, that did not affect attempts to stem the damage, as some local officials have charged.