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Originally published Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Deep silt hindering recovery of sunken boat at Penn Cove

There is so much silt at the bottom of Penn Cove off Whidbey Island that divers were having problems putting chains around a sunken 140-foot fishing boat in an effort to hoist it out of the water. Some progress was made late Thursday afternoon.

Raising the Deep Sea

A proposed plan for lifting the derelict vessel, Deep Sea, from the bottom of Penn Cove.

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When there is so much silt that you can't even find the bottom, the task of hoisting up the derelict, 140-foot fishing boat that caught fire and sank at Penn Cove off Whidbey Island is daunting.

But progress was made late Thursday afternoon, when divers managed to put a chain in place under the stern of the boat.

Now they will work to do the same thing under the bow. The boat is sitting sideways at a depth of 50 to 60 feet.

Below that is at least an additional 25 feet of silt, said Dick Walker, the state Department of Ecology's on-scene coordinator.

He said crews on one of two barges that will be used to lift the ship tried this week to put down pilings to the bottom for anchor. Problem was, they couldn't find the bottom.

"It is very light silt, not compacted at all, just muck all the way down," Walker said. "It's causing huge problems. There is just nothing firm down there."

The Seattle-based company of Global Diving & Salvage has been contracted to extricate the boat that sank May 13 and led to the shutdown of the island's world-famous mussel farm. Now is the mussels' peak spawning season and their harvest has been closed until cleared by toxicity tests. Global Diving will either refloat the boat or place it on a barge and take it to a shipyard.

Walker said divers have been using jet air pumps to blast out trenches that are 12 feet deep at the bottom of the boat.

On the stern side, on Thursday they finally were able to run a cable a half-inch in diameter through that trench, and then hook it to heavy-duty chains attached to cranes.

Walker said that what slowed work was that the silt just "sloughs back in."

Compounding problems is that as the boat sank, heavy debris ranging from a large metal hatch cover to pipes fell off, and the Deep Sea landed on top. That makes the work of divers even harder, Walker said.

Originally, the Department of Ecology had high hopes of pulling up the 750,000 pound vessel "Deep Sea" on Wednesday.

Now, that will likely get bumped to Monday, Walker said.

Projected state and federal costs associated with dealing with the Deep Sea are $2.3 million, and so far, the public is on the hook.

Crews already have recovered 1,400 or so gallons of oil that leaked from the Deep Sea and pumped an additional 3,100 gallons of fuel safely from tanks they could reach. But there could be more oil in tanks that divers couldn't access.

The owner of the sunken boat, Rory Westmoreland, a Renton scrap dealer, carried no insurance on the boat. Walker said Westmoreland has said he has no money to pay for the cleanup, although the state says it will go after him for reimbursement.

Walker said the cost estimate doesn't even include disposing of the Deep Sea once it is taken to dry dock at Stabbert Maritime Yacht & Ship in Ballard.

There, Walker said, the boat's oil tanks will be steam cleaned, asbestos removed and wiring taken out. Then the Deep Sea will be cut up for scrap metal.

"The news is not good for the mussel farm that has been so severely affected by this incident," Walker said.

Ian Jefferds, co-owner of Penn Cove Shellfish, said his company is losing $50,000 a day from not being able to harvest not only the mussels, but also clams and oysters it grows at Penn Cove. The company has been able to partially mitigate those losses by harvesting at its facility at Quilcene Bay.

A big reason Penn Cove is a prime shellfish-growing area is because it's at the mouth of the Skagit River, Walker said, "and it's pouring out all this silt that is full of nutrients."

He said everyone knows the urgency of getting the boat out of Penn Cove.

"The divers are spending 200 minutes on the bottom before coming up," he said. "The turnover of divers is so tight, that literally one comes up, takes off his diving hard hat and hands it to the next diver to go down, and that diver is in the water within two minutes of the first diver coming up. That means he has a minute to clean the inside of the helmet before putting it on."

Staff reporter Maureen O'Hagan contributed to this report.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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