ABOARD THE M.V. ASHLAND (AP) _ Ashland Oil Co. wants its towboat crews free of alcohol so the company is checking them for drunken-driving arrests to help avert pollution and public- relations disasters like the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
″There’s no place for alcohol on a boat. It’s too dangerous,″ said Mary Hale, a cook aboard the Ashland, a towboat working the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.
For pilots and crew members, alcohol is more dangerous than the eight barges of gasoline, diesel and crude oil they were pushing on a recent Ohio River run from Kenova, W.Va., to Louisville, Ky.
The only alcohol aboard is in medicine cabinets.
″You have to recognize danger while you still have time to do something about it,″ said Skip Muscovalley, one of the Ashland’s captains.
″If we have the tiniest mistake, our jobs and lives are at stake,″ Muscovalley said. ″If you sink a grain barge or a coal barge, well, it happens and you just go on. Sink one of these dudes and you make the news. You’re the new Joe Hazelwood.″
Hazelwood, 43, a veteran mariner from Huntington, N.Y., was captain of the Exxon Valdez when the tanker ran aground and spilled nearly 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound a year ago Saturday. It was the nation’s worst oil spill.
A state jury in Anchorage acquitted Hazelwood on Thursday of criminal mischief, reckless endangerment and operating a vessel while intoxicated. But the jury convicted him of negligent discharge of oil, which carries a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Authorities said a review of Hazelwood’s driving record uncovered two drunken-driving arrests and three license suspensions.
Ashland Oil officials thought reviewing its pilots’ driving records might find trouble spots before the company suffers a waterborne accident of its own.
″We found a few people with DUIs in their history,″ said Zane Meek, Ashland’s administrator of marine transportation. ″We told them our side of the story and told them we didn’t want to see any kind of habit like that.″
No pattern of abuse has developed and no one has been disciplined, Meek said.
″We’re not after someone who has one incident. Any of us could have that occur,″ said John Joeckel, company manager of fleet operations. ″We really are trying to keep this a non-punitive type of program because we want people who think they have a problem to come forward.″
Skippers say crews welcome the checks and understand Ashland’s need to protect its investment on runs from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to Texas.
″The cost of equipment has gone up and there’s so much money involved that they couldn’t afford any problems on their boats,″ said Merle Adams, an Ashland skipper. ″The company is looking out for its own welfare as well as your own.″
Ashland crews have 30 days on and 30 days off. The tugboats run 24 hours a day and crew members alternate six-hour shifts, grabbing sleep and meals in their time off.
″I know what to look for; any kind of strange behavior,″ said David Smith, captain of the Valvoline, another vessel in Ashland’s fleet. ″We have 10 men on the boat ... If you work with the same men for a month, you know if they’re acting differently.″