The Coast Guard, state Ecology Department and Tacoma Fire Department responded to the Mason Marina on the Hylebos Waterway where the two ships had been moored, waiting to be dismantled.
The 167-foot Helena Star went down, leaving its stern sticking out of the water. It was tied to the 130-foot Golden West, causing it to list.
The ships have been there for a couple of years and have "been on the radar" for the Ecology Department since last year when one started to list, spokesman Dieter Bohrmann said.
About 20,000 gallons of fuel were pumped off the vessels last March, he said. So, the pollution threat is limited, although some residual fuel could be aboard.
Arriving firefighters smelled diesel and saw a light sheen on the water. They deployed an oil spill containment boom, Battalion Chief Allen Estes said.
The sinking was reported about midnight Thursday by a man working in a shop at the marina who heard a crash, Estes said.
The ownership of the boats is unclear. The man working at the marina said he had been told they were recently sold, Estes said.
A salvage crew would have to raise the sunken ship. "It's probably going to be very expensive," Estes said.
The Coast Guard set aside $40,000 Friday for initial work on the ships, said Petty Officer Nathan Bradshaw. They're not a hazard to navigation, but now officials have to decide what to do with them.
The Tacoma ships are not on state aquatic lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources. "However, we were well aware of them as they were on our list of vessels to be removed if we had the funding," said aquatics spokeswoman Toni Weyman Droscher.
Earlier this month, the 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.
Last May, a 140-foot derelict ship caught fire and sank in Whidbey Island's Penn Cove. Pollution shut down Penn Cove shellfish beds and the spill response and salvage cost state agencies nearly $2 million.
A 431-foot barge that buckled in the Columbia River near Camas in January 2011 leaked oil and cost about $20 million in a federally funded cleanup overseen by the Coast Guard.
The cost of safely removing both ships in Tacoma is likely close to $1 million, Droscher said. "It's going to be a lot more than we have."
The department has about $200,000 in its Derelict Vessel Removal Account, and 230 vessels are on the waiting list to be removed.
Most are sailboats or power boats in the 25-foot 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," she said.
Owners are responsible, if they can be identified.
"One of the biggest challenges is figuring out who owns vessels," Droscher said. "They may have registration or documentation that's old, expired or nonexistent."
The derelict vessel 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.
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."
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