The Deep Sea debacle: State needs to address threat of derelict boats
The recent sinking of a crabbing boat in Penn Cover is a compelling illustration of why the state needs stronger laws to protect local waters from abandoned and derelict vessels that threaten our environment and economy.
Special to The Times
IT didn't take much for Rory Westmoreland to buy a derelict crabbing boat and tow it to Penn Cove; he bought the Deep Sea for just $2,500. But it has taken many government agencies and about $2 million to get rid of it after it caught fire, sank and shut down nearby mussel harvests.
A host of government agencies worked together to clean up the leaked fuel, raise the boat from the muck and get it out of Penn Cove. Divers risked their lives to get chains under it so it could be raised from the silt. The cleanup was a triumph of coordination and competence. Mussel harvesting has begun again in some places.
But prevention would have been a far less expensive and less polluting option.
In fact, this frustrating and expensive incident is a compelling illustration of why the state needs stronger laws and more resources to protect local waters from abandoned and derelict vessels that threaten our environment and economy, impede navigation, and work against all our efforts to clean up and restore Puget Sound.
There are more than 200 abandoned or derelict vessels listed by the state Department of Natural Resources, prioritized by the threat they pose to the environment or safe navigation. The Deep Sea was on that list, but didn't pose as immediate a threat as many other boats in even worse shape.
So how could a 140-foot vessel in poor repair park for months over public tidelands, just hundreds of yards from internationally renowned rafts of Penn Cove mussels? And how could it stay there for months while its owner ignored fines and put both the environment and the local economy at risk? And why do taxpayers get stuck with the huge bill for cleaning up after this boat owner?
The Deep Sea debacle happened because we as a state and nation are not investing the pennies for prevention that would forestall the pound of cure. The state Department of Natural Resources Derelict Vessel Removal Program currently receives about $750,000 a year, mostly from a $3 surcharge on the annual vessel registration fee. This amount is not nearly enough to address a 200-vessel backlog that just keeps growing, but it is a very small fraction of the cost of cleanup for disasters like the sinking of the Deep Sea.
The agencies that got involved with the Deep Sea cleanup ended up involving the Coast Guard, the Island County's Sheriff and Emergency Management, the state Department of Ecology, Natural Resources, Health, Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and even the King County sheriff's helicopter service.
We need greater accountability for vessel owners and sellers. An $80-a-day fine was not a strong enough incentive to get Westmoreland to remove the Deep Sea. Given today's economic struggles, it may be time to create a vessel amnesty program that would allow distressed boat owners to transfer title to the state to expedite removal of abandoned boats.
The Puget Sound Partnership, the state agency that coordinates cleanup and recovery of Puget Sound, will convene an Oil Spill Work Group this summer to consider possible solutions to this problem. This Work Group has the brains and muscle to get the job done. It includes people from industry, environmental groups, tribes, local government, and state and federal agencies whose previous recommendations led to legislation in 2010 to improve oil spill prevention and response.
The Partnership's Work Group will need public participation and political will to push through a solution to this problem, and to ensure that the beaches we love, the mussels and other seafood we eat, and the maritime economy we rely on are protected from harm. The Deep Sea was a big lesson for all of us in how much damage and expense just one derelict vessel can cause. It's a lesson we cannot afford to ignore.Gerry O'Keefe is executive director of the Puget Sound Partnership, working with local, state, tribal governments and citizen groups to restore the Puget Sound.