Davy Crockett Oil Spill and Cleanup Was Preventable

Feb 21, 2012

COUMBIA RIVER, Wash. -- The U.S. Coast Guard and its contractors spent 10 months and $22 million last year removing the Davy Crockett from the Columbia River. The barge had broken apart during a botched salvage job, spilling oil and PCBs into the river.

Workers removed more than 38,000 gallons of oil from the ship. The cleanup was declared a success. But an EarthFix investigation has found that government officials could have prevented the oil spill and the need for a multi-million dollar cleanup.

Bonnie Stewart has the story.

Years before the Davy Crockett began sending oil sheens down the Columbia River, the state of Washington and the U.S. Coast Guard ordered two of the vessel’s owners to take responsibility for the rusting ship.

Neither owner did that.

Instead the vessel was sold to Bret Simpson who now faces criminal charges for allowing the ship to release oil in the river.

In the end, the U.S Coast Guard had to tap a federal Oil Spill Fund to pay for the $22 million cleanup.

By many accounts, the former World War Two Liberty Ship was brought to the Columbia River in 1993. And it remained in one spot until its demise last year.

In 2005, Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources ordered then-owner Mike Church to move Davy Crockett.

The order said the 431-foot ship was illegally moored on state-owned aquatic lands.

If Church refused to move the ship, state officials said they would charge him rent and turn the case over to the Attorney General for legal action.

Church did not move the ship. The state did not charge him rent. And the case never reached the Attorney General’s office.

Swenddal: “At that time, it is my understanding is that the boat was not in imminent danger of sinking.”

That’s Kristen Swenddal. She manages the state’s 2.6 million acres of aquatic lands. She worked for the division in 2005 but was not the manager then.

Swenddal: "What’s likely happened is that we had a number of other things that were more imminent danger and greater urgency and we moved on to those."

That was 2005. Three years passed before the Davy Crockett caught the government’s attention again. The ship was still tucked away in a cove near Camas, Washington. Long-time Camas resident, Judy Jendro, took me to that spot.

Jendro: ”We’re about 10 miles on the old Evergreen Highway and the Davy Crockett used to sit right down there off the bank, horizontal to the bank. In the summertime it was pretty well hidden with all the trees, but you could really see it after all the trees lose their leaves in the wintertime.”

On an April day in 2008, Jendro noticed the Davy Crockett had shifted in the water.

Jendro: “I really became concerned about it when it started listing to the starboard side, and it did look like there was a, looked like an oil tank maybe on top deck and that’s when I was really concerned and wanted to get it out of the river.”

Jendro emailed Washington State officials, but they don’t handle large derelict vessels.

So the state forwarded her email to the U.S. Coast Guard. A Coast Guard chief told Jendro that the Davy Crockett did not pose an imminent threat to the environment. He said the ship contained only a small amount of lube oil. He also told Jendro that the vessel had an owner with valid insurance who would be towing it to a shipyard that year.

The next month, in May 2008, Mike Church sold the Davy Crockett to G. Dennis Vaughan. Vaughan, a retired Navy Rear Admiral, owned a shipbreaking business. He did not move the ship from its illegal mooring. In 2009, a year after Vaughan bought the Davy Crockett, it broke loose from that mooring. That caught the Coast Guard’s attention. Rear Admiral Vaughan explains:

Vaughan: “ The stern swung out in a real fluky wind and so they put out a port order. And within 24 hours we essentially cleared that and you know put a stern line on so it wouldn’t happen again."

State records show that at that time, Vaughan told officials all the fuel had been pumped off the ship. And only one tank of oily water remained on board.

Coast Guard Captain Frederick Myer did not accept that report.

He ordered Vaughan to conduct a marine survey that would confirm exactly how much oil and fuel was on the ship and where it was stored.

That report showed that the Davy Crockett still held 2,800 gallons of heavy bunker oil; 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel mixed with water; and 200 gallons of oily waste.

We now know that even that information was grossly inaccurate.

After receiving the report, Capt. Myer wrote a second order. It gave Rear Admiral Vaughan 30 days to remove all the oil and prove he had disposed of it properly.

Captain Meyer even followed up by sending Vaughan a letter of concern. He pointed out that the ship had a tear in one of the hull’s bottom plates and he encouraged Vaughan to conduct a structural survey of the vessel. He also urged Vaughan to remove the oil without delay. To date, neither the Coast Guard nor Vaughan has provided EarthFix with proof that any oil or fuel was removed in 2009.

Captain Myer declined to comment for this report. He retired in 2010 after the Coast Guard investigated him for improper use of a government computer.

In mid-2010, Rear Admiral Vaughan sold the Davy Crockett to Bret Simpson. And by January 2011, the vessel was releasing oil sheens that stretched for miles down the Columbia River.

VandenHeuvel: “This was a preventable situation where they let it sit there for too long knowing that it contained toxic pollution and that it was unstable.”]

That’s Brett VandenHeuvel. He directs Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental watchdog group.

VandenHeuvel: “It’s not an accident it’s more of a failure of our agencies and the Coast Guard and to oversee what’s happening on the Columbia.”

In all, workers removed more than 38,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil, enough to fill a large in-ground swimming pool. They processed 1.6 million gallons of oily water and almost 5,000 pounds of asbestos. It is unknown how much oil and PCBs escaped the ship before anyone noticed.

During the cleanup, Jim Sachet was Washington State’s on-scene-coordinator. In a press conference he described the pollution threat:

Sachet: “The longer term effects of persistent chemicals like PCBs, that they can get into sediments, they can get into shell fish and eventually find their way into the food chain, so that’s really the concern.”

Sachet said the state eventually will calculate the environmental costs of the Davy Crockett spill.

That work has been put on hold due to the pending criminal case against the ship’s last owner. That trial is set for August.

The lengthy and expensive cleanup of the Davy Crockett was a wake-up call for federal and state officials.

That an oil-laden, 431-foot vessel could languish on state-owned property for so many years led officials to form a regional derelict vessel task force.

Its members already have identified more than 30 large abandoned or derelict vessels. Now they must determine the environmental risk of each vessel and decide what action to take.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network