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State cracks down on derelict boats

The marine vessel Forus had to be recovered from the Columbia River. Credit: Washington State Office of the Attorney General

When the derelict 60-foot tugboat Chickamauga was towed away from Bainbridge Island earlier this winter, Doug Crow, the manager of Eagle Harbor Marina, breathed a sigh of relief. The tug's owner hadn't paid his moorage fees for months, and when the tug sank at the dock, spilling fuel oil into the harbor, a crane had to lift the leaky boat off the bottom. A mix of federal and state funds made the removal possible. “I think the owner fully intended to drop it on us and abandon it,” Crow says. “Now it's gone, and that's a wonderful thing.”

The trouble has only started for Anthony R. Smith, the owner of the century-old vessel, which is listed on the Washington Heritage Register. (It's an honorific only. Listing confers few legal protections.) Smith has pleaded “not guilty” to three criminal charges: one count of polluting the harbor, one count of abandoning the tug, and one count of first-degree theft for failing to pay more than $5,000 in moorage fees. He recently received a continuance on his trial date to gather information that he thinks may help his case and present it to the attorney general's office, which filed the charges in January.

The action is part of a new emphasis in state government on pushing the owners of derelicts to remove them from Puget Sound, lakes, and rivers, and punishing owners who refuse to act. It's part and parcel of larger policies meant to protect water quality and public safety in waterways overseen by the state.

“I've made environmental crimes a priority in my administration,” says Attorney General Bob Ferguson.

In a separate case, the attorney general's office has charged Stephen C. Mason, owner of the 167-foot Helena Star, with one count of abandoning a vessel, one count of discharging fuel oil into a waterway and one count of discharging pollutants. The charges stem from a 2013 incident in Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma. The Helena Star, at the time tied up to a second vessel, sank in the inlet of Commencement Bay, taking the second boat with it. Mason has entered a plea of not guilty, and a trial date has not been set. On March 5, the AG's office announced charges against the owner of the fishing boat Forus, which the office says was abandoned in the Columbia River near Finley. The office says the boat discharged “polluting matters” into the rivers. The cleanup cost the state more than $100,000.

Owners have abandoned boats large and small in state waters since the earliest commercial activity on both freshwater and saltwater. The issue gained new visibility in 2011 with the case of the Davy Crockett, a 430-foot barge that leaked oil into the Columbia River near Camas. The cleanup took 10 months and cost $22 million. The owner was charged with violations of the federal Clean Water Act and sentenced to four months in prison. One of the worst cases of environmental trouble from vessel abandonment in Puget Sound was the 140-foot crabber Deep Sea, which burned and sank at Whidbey Island's Penn Cove in 2012. The boat went down a stone's throw from one of the state's most productive shellfish farming areas, threatening a multimillion dollar industry. The ship was eventually raised and towed to Seattle for dismantling.

The state combats the problem in waters it controls primarily through the Department of Natural Resources' Derelict Vessel Removal Program, which was established in 2002. Currently, the program counts 160 derelict boats, ranging from a sunken 10-foot unnamed skiff in Spanaway Lake to the 197-foot Scow 97 on the Snohomish River between the I-5 and U.S. Highway 2 bridges. Most of the vessels on the state's official list are in King, Kitsap, and San Juan counties. As well as leaking fuel and other hazardous substances, derelict vessels sometimes break up, sink or block navigation channels.

The program gets its funding from a $3 fee on registration for pleasure boats and a $5 surcharge on the cost of a visiting vessel permit. The fees raise about $750,000 a year for the program, which pays for removal of the worst offenders. One-full time person is assigned to the program.  “Unfortunately, with the growing number and size of problem vessels, the funding can't keep up with the removal and disposal costs,” a program fact sheet says. “The backlog of vessels in need of removal continues to grow.”

“The state is doing a good job with the resources they have,” says Chris Wilke, executive director of the environmental group Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “The resources are not enough to deal with the problem.”

The Legislature this year listened to DNR's request to establish a new fee on commercial vessels that would provide additional removal funding. The bill, HB 2457, which will also strengthen rules on insurance for marinas and moored vessels, is expected to be signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this week. The bill also creates new penalties for anyone failing to register a boat.

Doug Crow, manager of Eagle Harbor Marina, believes the state should cut some of the red tape he sees in the vessel removal program. Currently, only municipalities and other government agencies have access to the removal money, which slows down the recovery of costs related to disposing an abandoned boat. “Private marinas should have the same access as the government,” Crow says.

DNR is also working with other state, federal and local agencies to identify and clean up derelict vessels. DNR provided information to the state attorney general's office as it prepared the cases against the owners of Chickamauga and Helena Star. Elsewhere, a collaboration with the City of Gig Harbor led to a recent success. In 2011, the police department identified 15 derelict boats, and by early this year, 13 of the boats had been moved to another location, one was seized and sold, and one was brought into compliance with state law. One of the boats sank, but DNR picked up the $7,600 tab for raising her. “The program was successful at very little expense to us,” says Gig Harbor police spokesman Lt. Kelly Busey.

The lonely abandoned boat on a picturesque beach was once a sentimental subject for painters and photographers. But the romantic view of derelict vessels is giving way to hard-nosed approach to water pollution, at least in waters controlled by state and local governments. Although the AG's office won't say if more prosecutions are in the offing, Ferguson says he's willing to bring more if owners won't clean up their messes. “If you defaced a public landmark, or damaged public property, you would be held accountable,” says Chris Wilke of Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. “Water quality is a public asset, and environmental crimes are real crimes.”

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