Give DNR More Tools to Deal With Derelict Vessels

News Tribune Editorial Staff, March 20, 2013

Many Washingtonians have a love affair with boats. But when the romance wears off, owners often walk out on them. And guess who ends up footing the bill for these derelict vessels?

The taxpayers, of course. Now legislation is moving that would prevent many problems in the first place and, when that fails, make it easier to go after abandoned boats’ owners to assume responsibility.

Derelict vessels can be found in waterways all along Puget Sound, often one bad storm away from sinking. When that happens, they can spill fuel, asbestos and other toxins, posing a hazard to marine life and potentially obstructing commerce.

A couple recent examples:

Last year’s sinking of the 140-foot fishing boat Deep Sea in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove shut down shellfish beds and cost $5.4 million in cleanup. The Port of Seattle had sold the vessel to a scrap dealer, who abandoned it in Penn Cove, where it caught fire and sank.

Even more costly was removal of the Davy Crockett, an old barge that had been sold for scrap and began spilling oil into the Columbia River in 2011. That cost more than $22 million in federal funds and more than $680,000 in state funds. The barge’s owner was sentenced Monday to four months in federal prison for violating the Clean Water Act.

The state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program works at preventing those kinds of disaster. According to Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, the program has been able to successfully leverage a meager annual budget – about $880,500, funded by vessel registration fees and nonresident permits.

It has removed 460 derelict vessels by partnering with other public entities and another 268 by persuading or forcing private parties to take responsibility. But 179 vessels – including 20 very large ones – are on a “watch list.”

Clearly more is needed when the cost of one big cleanup can wipe out the program’s entire annual budget. House Bill 1245 and Senate Bill 5663 would provide the Department of Natural Resources more prevention and enforcement tools that will save taxpayer money in the long term.

Provisions in the legislation would create civil penalties for failing to register vessels, making it easier to track down owners; create a way for owners to relinquish their vessels to the state; require inspection of older, larger vessels before they can be sold; prohibit public agencies from selling unseaworthy vessels; and allow the state Department of Ecology to board suspicious-looking vessels and check for potential pollution threats.

Puget Sound will never be truly cleaned up while so many problem vessels need addressing. Lawmakers should give enforcers more tools to do just that.

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