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Saturday, August 10, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ferry System Fires Elwha Captain For Marijuana Use

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The skipper who took the state ferry Elwha 15 miles off its designated route in the San Juan Islands, nearly running it aground, was fired yesterday by the Washington State Ferries.

An investigation by the ferry system following the July 25 incident found that Capt. Charles Petersen violated four sections of the system's Code of Conduct.

Those sections deal with alcohol or drug use, neglect of duties, failure to follow applicable regulations, and testing positive for alcohol or drugs while at work although not under their influence.

Evidence of marijuana use by Petersen was found during a urine test after the July 25 incident, according to the Coast Guard. Petersen has been on paid administrative leave since the incident.

Under the Code of Conduct, a positive test for illegal drugs is grounds for immediate firing, a system spokeswoman said.

Petersen "used extremely poor judgment, putting his vessel, passengers and crew in jeopardy" when he took the Elwha "into an area where he did not possess pilotage or experience (local knowledge)" for operating a vessel of that size, said Princess Jackson-Smith, the ferry system's public-affairs director.

Petersen had served in the San Juans for a number of years and was expected to be familiar with alternate routes to be used in storms and heavy shipping traffic, she said. Petersen told the Coast Guard he was taking advantage of smooth water to look for a storm route.

Petersen has been licensed by the Coast Guard since 1979.

The designated route between Anacortes and Sidney near Victoria, B.C., runs north of San Juan Island. Petersen took the Elwha around the south end of the island where it scraped bottom in a well-known area of shallow water, suffering superficial hull damage, the Coast Guard said. Petersen told the Coast Guard the vessel struck a submerged log.

The 382-foot ferry carried 300 passengers and 100 vehicles at the time of the incident.

Coast Guard rules require employers to test their employees for drugs and alcohol after such incidents, said Lt. Manny Perez of the investigations department of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office.

The ferry system's allegations are separate from the Coast Guard charges of negligence, misconduct, violation of regulations and use of a dangerous drug.

Conviction on the Coast Guard's dangerous-drug charge could cost Petersen, 47, of Anacortes, his captain's license.

Conviction on the other federal charges of negligence, misconduct and violation of regulations charges could collectively also result in his losing his license.

A hearing on all the federal charges is scheduled for Friday before an administrative-law judge.

Contacted by phone yesterday, Petersen's wife said her husband would not comment. He can appeal his firing through the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union.

Paul Green, ferry-system director, said half of the system's employees in safety-sensitive positions, about 1,000, are randomly tested each year for drug and alcohol.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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