Washington Set To Pass Legislation On Derelict Vessels But Funding Problems Remain

Mar 26, 2013

Recreational boaters in Washington pay a registration fee, part of which covers clean up and removal of derelict vessels. Commercial vessels do not pay into that fund.
Credit Ashley Ahearn / EarthFix

There are several hundred derelict and abandoned vessels dotting the waterways of Washington and Oregon. They can block navigation and pollute the environment. And they can also be very expensive to remove.

Bills to fund the clean up and prevention of derelict vessels have now been passed in the Washington house and senate, but Ashley Ahearn reports, no permanent sources of funding for large vessel removal have been identified.

  When it comes to derelict vessels there are a couple of poster children – or poster boats - that come to mind.

Take the Deep Sea. A year ago the fishing boat caught fire and sank in Penn Cove off Whidbey Island. More than 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel escaped, forcing the closure of nearby shellfish beds. The clean up cost more than $5 million.

Or take the Davy Crockett – that 431-foot barge broke apart and spilled almost 40,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River, leading to a $22 million clean up.

Melissa Ferris heads the derelict and abandoned vessel program at the state Department of Natural Resources.

She says the new legislation does not provide funding for those major vessel removals.

Ferris: This bill is not solving that problem.

But, she says,

Ferris: “The bill adds some things to get at vessel owner accountability.”

Here’s how:

If the bill passes, vessel owners who want to sell their large old boats would have to provide an inspection report to the buyer. That would document how much oil or other pollutants may be left on board. And if they don’t provide that report, then they could be liable for the clean up costs if the boat sinks later on down the road.

Ferris: “You wouldn’t buy a house without knowing what you were getting into and most responsible buyers are not going to buy a large vessel without doing some sort of inspection, but it’s not required.”

Under the new bill, it would be.

The bill would also strengthen the Department of Ecology’s authority to board abandoned vessels to assess the environmental risk before it’s too late.

But there’s one ongoing problem: commercial vessels – those old fishing boats or barges – are far and away the most expensive clean up projects on Melissa Ferris’ list, but those vessel owners are not required to pay into the clean up fund.

Right now if you register a recreational vessel in Washington 3 dollars of your registration fee goes to pay for the removal of derelict and abandoned vessels.

You are picking up the tab for major troublemakers like the Deep Sea and the Davy Crockett.

The $3 fee was set to drop down to $2 at the end of 2013, but the new legislation prevents that from happening.

Jim Carnahan extends a hand and helps me aboard the Perdon, a 35-foot sloop moored at Shilshole Bay Marina in Ballard.

Carnahan: “It was built in 1976 so it’s younger than I am. Not at risk of being derelict? No, in fact I’m taking it to Homer AK in May. I’m going to take it up the inside channel to Homer AK.”

Carnahan grew up in Mukilteo and has been around boats since he was a little kid.

He says recreational boaters shouldn’t be the only ones paying into the clean up fund.

Carnahan: “I think the commercial vessel owners should also pay something into that as well. I think that all boat owners should. More importantly I think the people that own those derelict vessels should be hunted down and caused to pay for it but my understanding is that sometimes it’s not possible to find that person or the person who owns it doesn’t have any money.”

Tax payers – whether they own boats or not – end up paying for major vessel clean ups that exceed the budget for the Derelict Vessel Program.

A final version of the bill should be signed into law in the coming weeks.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio