Crew fired for alcohol use after their tug hits a Calif. refinery pier

The pilings of the refinery dock were hit by Independence‘s bow. [photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard]

Inattentiveness in the wheelhouse after the crew had consumed alcohol likely caused a tugboat to slam into a refinery pier along Carquinez Strait, investigators said.

All three crewmembers of the oceangoing tug Independence were drinking alcohol before the May 14 accident near Martinez, Calif., said the vessel’s owner, AmNav Maritime Services. The Oakland-based company said all three men were fired.

Coast Guard spokesman Dan Dewell said two of the crewmen tested positive for alcohol. The third man, the tug’s master, refused to be tested. In a statement, AmNav confirmed that all three had been drinking.

Independence had finished a job at Pittsburg, about 12 miles east of Martinez, and was heading back to its homeport of Benicia, Calif., when the vessel strayed off course and struck the wharf. The pier, on the south shore of the strait, is part of Tesoro Corp.’s Golden Eagle Refinery.

“The track line of the tug (was such that) he was in the channel coming back from Pittsburg,†said Ross Wheatley, chief of the Coast Guard’s investigations division at Oakland. “At some point, he left the channel and went into the dock.â€

The collision, at 0020, severely damaged the wharf and punctured at least one fuel transfer pipe, triggering a large multi-agency environmental response. Initially, the potential size of the spill was estimated to be as much as 1,500 gallons of gasoline. In the end, only five to 10 gallons spilled into the strait, Tesoro spokesman Mike Marcy said.

Carquinez Strait links Suisun Bay with San Pablo Bay in Northern California, near Vallejo. Independence had completed an undocking assist for an outbound ship leaving Pittsburg, Dewell said. Sometime while ashore at Pittsburg, but still on duty, the Independence crew consumed alcohol, AmNav’s statement said.

The master then navigated the 5,080-hp tug outbound toward Benicia, which is on the north bank of the strait. Dewell said the 78-foot tug successfully passed Buoy No. 9 but never made it to Buoy No. 7. The navigational aids were properly on station.

While Benicia would require a turn to starboard, Independence instead exited the channel toward its port side and plowed into the refinery pier at a 90° angle, virtually head-on. In striking the wharf, the tug was 25 to 50 yards off course.

Wheatley said visibility was “unlimited†that night, and there were no reported equipment malfunctions on the tug, the Coast Guard investigators reported. There were no strong currents or high winds.

Aside from the licensed master operating the tug, a deck hand was on duty below deck when the accident happened. A second licensed captain was on the vessel but was not on duty, Wheatley said.

Wheatley and Dewell declined to reveal the tug crew’s blood-alcohol level. In the United States, it is illegal to operate a commercial vessel when your blood alcohol content is greater than 0.04 percent. Drug test results were also unavailable.

The only refinery pipe that was punctured was a small, half-inch-diameter sample

Independence‘s bow shows marks where it hit the pilings of the refinery dock.

line. Tesoro quickly repaired other bent lines, but repairs to the wharf itself and the walkways were not as simple. Dewell said the refinery was not permitted to replace the smashed wooden piers with new wooden ones. Instead, concrete piers were required. An estimated cost was not available.

Marcy said the damage to the wharf caused no delays to fuel tankers or barges.

AmNav said the tug crew’s actions were “extremely disconcerting.†They violated the company’s zero-tolerance policy on the use of drugs or alcohol.

The tug had scrapes on its bow but no serious damage.

Wheatley said his investigators were probing whether the tug captain fell asleep at the helm. He said the Coast Guard is pursuing enforcement action against all three of the crew.

The investigators plan to analyze the men’s work schedule over the previous 96 hours to determine whether they had proper rest, he said.

The Coast Guard investigation was still open in July. Not all of the three crewmen were cooperating, Wheatley said.

A fourth crewman — a deck hand — was allowed to leave Independence at Benicia earlier in the shift, at about 2100. That deck hand did not possess a Merchant Mariner’s Document, Wheatley said, and the Coast Guard is pursuing a charge against the employer for that alleged violation.

By Professional Mariner Staff