Our Voice: Boat owners need to know they are liable for derelicts

We live in a desert. So it seems strange that Washington's derelict vessels law is making headlines in the Mid-Columbia.

But the attorney general's office just filed the state's third derelict vessel case -- this one in Benton County.

Boat owners and potential boat owners need to understand the derelict vessels law.

By definition, derelict vessels are boats that may leak fuels or other contaminants into the water -- sometimes by sinking, as is the case for one near Finley. When derelict vessels sink they can block navigational channels and leak hazardous materials into our environment.

The Forus sunk on July 12 in the Columbia River, two miles downstream from Two Rivers Park.

It was recovered from the river bottom with a crane on Aug. 14 with 159 gallons of fuel still onboard. It had emptied another 50 or so gallons of diesel into the river.

Cost of the recovery was $100,000.

Ignorance is the big opponent in the fight to keep these vessels out of danger of sinking. What one owner might see as a fixer-upper is more likely a huge liability.

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson told the editorial board about boats that people "pick up on Craigslist for 100 bucks," then discover that they are too costly to fix. If the bargain boat sinks, it becomes the basis for criminal charges.

That's when you've got a real problem on your hands.

True, it's only a misdemeanor.

Hardly worth pursuing, some may say.

But in addition to the possible $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail, the state can then go after the owner for restitution.

In the Finley case, that's close to the $100,00 mark. An unresolved case west of the mountains is closing in on the $1 million price tag, and the boat is still sitting in a waterway in Pierce County.

In the 12 years since the Department of Natural Resources was given the charge to clean up the waters and some funding to do so, the state has successfully removed more than 500 derelict vessels from our waters.

That's 500 potential problems fixed.

There are 153 more derelict vessels that the state has identified and is working with the owners to take care of, before it comes to criminal charges and cleanup costs. There are certainly more that just haven't made the list -- yet.

But the best reason to pursue these cases is to warn people that they are at risk of breaking the law and financially liable for cleanup costs.

Many people just don't know that. It's a case of buyer beware. That "fixer upper" might be a lot more than you bargained for.

Most people think it can't happen to them. If you have one of these boats -- or are boat shopping -- rethink that idea.