Derelict vessels damage state’s budget and environment

If you walk the docks at marinas or port facilities from Long Beach to Bellingham, you will encounter rotting, rusting and gradually sinking aquatic vessels. Boats, ships and barges of every variety and size are falling apart in Washington waterways – threatening marine ecosystems, obstructing commerce and ruining otherwise scenic views.

Think of the MV Kalakala, the badly corroded 88-year-old ferry that has been moored in Tacoma’s Hylebos Waterway for the past eight years. In 2011, the Coast Guard declared it a serious hazard to navigation, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that, if it sunk, it could block access to the Port of Tacoma at a cost of $23 million a month and 1,300 jobs temporarily compromised.

Yet due to the potential multimillion-dollar cost of removal and the underfunding of the state and federal programs that dispose of derelict vessels, the Kalakala and other large derelict vessels are too often left in place until they sink and trigger environmental and economic emergencies.

This dangerous practice cannot continue.

That’s why the state Department of Natural Resources is asking the Legislature to strengthen our ability to remove abandoned or derelict vessels and crack down on the owners who are costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars and polluting our most precious marine ecosystems.

In addition to the oil and gas in their holds, these vessels often contain just about every hazardous material and chemical you can find under a kitchen sink or in a garage. Many older vessels are coated with lead paint and sprayed or insulated with asbestos; others are piled high with years of junk accumulated over a lifetime at sea.

Because we steward 2.6 million acres of state-owned aquatic lands, the DNR was chosen by the Legislature in 2002 to manage funding and provide assistance to public entities removing and disposing of derelict vessels. Our Derelict Vessel Removal Program carefully removes and disposes of derelict vessels while minimizing damage to the environment and public safety.

However, the DNR’s current resources are clearly unequal to the scale of the problem. The DVRP is funded by recreational boat owners through fees on annual vessel registration and nonresident vessel permits. Those fees add up to around $880,500 annually, which is pitifully insufficient to pay for the removal and disposal of a single large derelict commercial vessel.

Nonetheless, the DVRP has been an incredible success, tackling a messy and expensive problem on a shoestring budget and delivering excellent results for the state’s communities and ecosystems. Since the program’s inception, the department has smartly leveraged our resources to remove 460 derelict vessels in concert with other public entities and to persuade or compel private parties to remove an additional 268 vessels.

But it’s not enough.

It’s difficult to exaggerate the scale of this problem. Currently, 179 vessels remain on our “watch list”; at least 20 of them are so large that the cost of removing and disposing of them almost certainly will exceed our program’s annual budget. The longer we let derelict vessels disintegrate in waterways across the state, the higher the likelihood a catastrophic sinking will occur at an exponentially greater fiscal and ecological cost.

Last year, for example, it cost $5.4 million to clean up the destruction caused by the Deep Sea, a 140-foot-fishing boat that sank in Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove and triggered an oil spill that shut down prime commercial shellfish beds. In 2011, cleaning up the Davy Crockett – a half-dismantled 431-foot barge on the Columbia River – cost the taxpayers more than $22 million in federal funds and more than $680,000 in state funds.

Clearly, it would be far cheaper and more ecologically responsible to proactively remove as many derelict vessels as we can before they sink and become costly environmental disasters.

House Bill 1245 and Senate Bill 5663 would hold vessel owners more accountable, prevent vessels from becoming derelict or abandoned in the first place, strengthen our enforcement capabilities, and shore up funding so these vessels don’t become a burden to Washington taxpayers or create an environmental disaster.

The time to act is now. We have no choice; the fiscal and ecological cost of Washington’s derelict vessel problem is too high to ignore.

Peter Goldmark is Washington’s commissioner of public lands.