Dealing With Derelict Vessels

Feb 22, 2012

COLUMBIA RIVER, Wash. -- There are hundreds of abandoned or sunken ships in Northwest waters. These vessels can threaten navigation, human safety and the environment. But state agencies in the region are only equipped to handle part of the problem. Ashley Ahearn reports.

We tend to romanticize shipwrecks as water-logged remnants of bygone days lurking beneath the waves. But the vast majority of the boats that end up abandoned or submerged don’t have pirate skulls or jewels onboard. These derelict vessels, as they’re called, are often filled with much more troubling booty.

Ferris: “I think of vessels as kind of holding everything that you would find under your kitchen sink – all the household hazardous chemicals and everything that you would find in that shelf in your garage from those project that went partially finished. They’re all on these vessels so when they sink all of that ends up in the Sound as well.”

Melissa Ferris heads the Derelict Vessel Program with Washington’s Department of Natural Resources.

In the past 10 years the program has removed close to 400 old boats from the rivers, bays and inlets of Washington. Boats like these.

I’ve followed Ferris up a ladder and into the rotting hull of a 35-foot cabin cruiser that’s up on blocks at a shipyard in Olympia.

Ferris: “Don’t trust anything that you step on. Always step tenderly first and make sure it will hold your weight.”

This ship was brought up from the bottom of a nearby inlet. There are two other old boats nearby, also waiting to be stripped for scrap and taken to the dump in pieces.

The stench is the first thing that hits me. A mix of dead sea creatures, diesel and mold. There’s trash everywhere. Electrical wires, oil-covered rags, cans of paint…

Ferris: “So we’re standing on the back deck – or where the back deck would be if the cabin was still intact. There are several batteries tucked in. And then we’ve got a generator here with diesel fuel.”

Ferris says ships like this can have upwards of 250 gallons of diesel fuel on them sometimes – which is a major problem if it gets into the environment. Not to mention the solvents, stripping compounds, acids, asbestos and heavy metals that may also be onboard.

Ferris keeps a list of boats like this one that need to be cleaned up and removed. There are over 200 on that list. Every boat has a story – some are abandoned. Some owners can’t afford to maintain them, or remove them if they take on water and sink.

But here’s the problem – Ferris’ program only funds removal of boats that are less than 200 feet in length. There’s no one agency in charge of the larger derelict vessels – which can cause more environmental damage. Dealing with just one of these larger ships could eat up Ferris’ entire annual budget at the Department of Natural Resources.

Ahearn: “So vessels over 200 feet are not strictly you guys but they’re not strictly the Coast Guard either. Who’s the actual go-to agency on those big ones?

Ferris: “There is no particular go-to agency for the large vessels. Some agencies are going to have certain roles they can play depending on what risk the vessel poses or where it is but there isn’t a derelict vessel program that covers anything over 200 feet.”

One ship offers a hard-learned lesson about what happens when no one takes charge of the biggest vessels when they reach the end of their lives.

The Davy Crockett was a 431-foot-long WWII era vessel that was moored in the Columbia River for years. It contained close to 40,000 gallons of oil but neither the state nor the Coast Guard made its owners take responsibility for addressing the oil spill risk until it was too late. Last year the ship broke apart and an oil sheen spread for miles down the Columbia River – leading to a $22 million clean up.

The owner of the Davy Crockett faces criminal charges for failure to remove the vessel when he was told. But an EarthFix investigation found that the spill could have been avoided.

In fact, the failure among different agencies to take responsibility for the Davy Crockett led to the formation of a task force specifically to deal with larger vessels.

The task force has made a list of the larger vessels in Washington and Oregon that are top priority. They’ve also hammered out which agencies have authority over which areas. But they haven’t taken action on any of the larger ships yet.

David Byers heads the Spill Response Program at the Washington Department of Ecology and serves on the task force.

Byers: “Right now there isn’t an adequate funding source to address the derelict vessels we have in Washington state and Oregon.”

It could cost millions of dollars to deal with the largest - and potentially the most harmful – vessels on the list.

Brett VandenHeuvel heads Columbia Riverkeeper – an environmental nonprofit in Oregon. He says the time for talk has passed.

VandenHeuvel: “I think the task force moving forward is a good thing but we need to see results from that quickly. If it results in additional process only instead of on the ground change then it’s not successful.”

But the big boats cost the big bucks. So until there’s funding available, there’s not a governmental department or agency that seems to want to step up to the plate and tackle this handful of water-logged – and potentially hazardous - hot potatoes.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network