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Originally published January 25, 2013 at 8:18 PM | Page modified January 28, 2013 at 12:06 PM

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State continues struggle with derelict vessels

The 167-foot Helena Star sank in the Hylebos Waterway, pulling another large vessel, the Golden West, partway with it. It’s the latest in a series of problems with derelict vessels in the state’s waterways.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It began as a Dutch coastal freighter, was later seized in a marijuana-smuggling operation, then went through a series of owners before winding up moored in Tacoma, waiting to be scrapped.

Then early Friday, the 167-foot Helena Star sank in the Hylebos Waterway. By afternoon, gawkers could see its stern still sticking out of the water at Mason Marina. Nearby, the 130-foot Golden West, which was tied up to the Helena Star, was sitting off-kilter, too.

The incident is the latest in a series of problems with derelict vessels that have been left rotting or abandoned all over the state’s waterways. Last May, a 140-foot former fishing vessel, the Deep Sea, caught fire and sank in Penn Cove, spilling fuel in the pristine water. It cost the state and federal government nearly $5.4 million to clean the mess and dispose of the craft.

Earlier this month, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) seized a 180-foot derelict ship at Port Ludlow and towed it across Puget Sound to Seattle to be dismantled before it became a safety or environmental problem. The owner was unable to carry out a plan to scrap it in Mexico.

A 431-foot barge that buckled in the Columbia River near Camas, Clark County, in January 2011 leaked oil and cost about $20 million in a federally funded cleanup overseen by the Coast Guard.

It’s unclear at this point how much it will cost to deal with the Helena Star — or even whether it will be raised. It was in the process of being scrapped, an elaborate process that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for vessels of that size.

A containment boom was placed around the ships in Tacoma on Friday, and the situation will be monitored over the weekend, according to Dieter Bohrmann, a spokesman for the state Department of Ecology.

About 20,000 gallons of fuel had been pumped off the vessels by the Coast Guard last March.

“So, the pollution threat is limited,” Bohrmann said.

The Coast Guard set aside $40,000 for this initial work, said Petty Officer Nathan Bradshaw. The vessels are not a hazard to navigation.

Vessel owners are responsible for them — but in this case, that’s not so simple as it may seem.

Years ago, the Helena Star was owned by marijuana smugglers. In 1978 the Coast Guard seized the freighter with 37 tons of pot aboard, the region’s largest-ever pot bust.

After a series of ownership transfers, the Helena Star and the Golden West were owned more recently by Mason Marine.

The company filed for bankruptcy last year, and its phone was not working Friday afternoon.

Mason might have recently sold the vessels, according to Toni Weyman Droscher, a DNR spokeswoman.

“We’re not sure really who the owner is,” she said. “Finding out who that is is going to be challenging.”

For now, there are no plans to move the ships, but ultimately it may be up to government officials to decide what to do.

The incident did not come as a complete surprise to state officials. The vessels were among some 230 on the state’s Derelict Vessel list.

Most are sailboats or power boats in the 25- to 30-foot range that owners were unable to maintain.

The bigger ships are the most dangerous and costly.

“It’s a constant battle with prioritizing the ships that are the most environmental danger or obstruction to navigation,” Droscher said.

The cost of safely removing both ships in Tacoma is likely close to $1 million, she added. The department has about $200,000 in its Derelict Vessel Removal Account. The account is funded by a $3 boat-registration fee.

The fund got a $3 million boost from Jobs Now Act money in the current budget, but that was eaten up by the Deep Sea and other vessels.

The state would like to work with ship and boat owners to hold them accountable and prevent vessels from being abandoned.

“People dream big dreams when they get a boat that’s a good deal, but chances are it’s not,” Droscher said. “There’s a saying that a boat is a hole in the water that you throw money into.”

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or mohagan@seattletimes.com

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