The pilot of a ship that hit a bridge, leading to San Francisco Bay's worst oil spill in nearly two decades, has been formally accused of misconduct.

The Board of Pilot Commissioners for the Bays of San Francisco, San Pablo and Suisun accused Capt. John Cota of setting out the morning of the Nov. 7 spill when he should have had "reason to doubt whether the ship could safely proceed under the prevailing circumstances."

The board suspended Cota's license last week, and he could have his license to pilot ships revoked. Cota's lawyer, John Meadows, did not return phone calls seeking comment Thursday.

Cota told the National Transportation Safety Board that his two radars showed signs of trouble and that he was unclear on certain symbols on his electronic charting system before the ship departed the Port of Oakland. It was a foggy morning, though investigators said the fog had evidently lifted by the time the ship left.

The board also accused Cota of "proceeding at a speed that was excessive for the circumstances." It said he failed to take advantage of a tugboat that was escorting him; failed to seek guidance from a Coast Guard service tracking the ship's movements; and failed to make full use of the ship's lookout.

The ship hit a support tower for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, opening a gash in its hull and leaking 58,000 gallons (220,000 liters) of toxic bunker fuel into the water. The spill killed hundreds of birds and closed more than a dozen area beaches.

Cota has 15 days to respond to the accusations in writing and to request a hearing. If he requests a hearing, the board has the options to hear the case itself, or to submit the matter to an administrative law judge.

The board could decide that issue as soon as next week.