Greater accountability, funding needed

By Peter Goldmark

The sinking of the 140-foot Deep Sea in Penn Cove is a tragedy that should have been prevented. Unfortunately, hundreds of these ticking time bombs are lurking in state waters, just waiting to cause environmental and economic damage. People rightfully demand to know why this is allowed to continue, and I share that frustration. We must prevent these boats from becoming holes in the water in which to throw the public’s money.

At any one time, there are at least 200 derelict vessels on the rivers, lakes and estuaries of Washington. Some are tied to docks and some are attached to buoys. They can range from decommissioned military ships over 400-feet long to smaller sailboats and pleasure craft.

These vessels harbor dreams of get-rich-quick schemes and hopes of restoring beautiful old boats to their former glory. The ferry Kalakala is probably the most familiar example of this.

As boats get older and deteriorate, they become cheaper to acquire (the Deep Sea was purchased for a mere $2,500). They also become more expensive to maintain and, eventually, to dispose of. When an owner becomes unable or unwilling to bear those costs, the boats often end up as trespassers on state-owned aquatic lands, becoming floating trash heaps on the public’s waterways.

In the last few years, we have been working with the Legislature to strengthen the Department of Natural Resource’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program (DVRP) — a successful program that has removed more than 410 derelict vessels and prevented numerous Deep Sea tragedies. But there are gaps in the tools we and other agencies can use to successfully deal with this problem.

Our Derelict Vessel Removal Program relies on due process for boat owners and assessing whether sinking or toxic spill risks are imminent; this respects property rights and focuses limited program dollars on the worst identifiable hazards. Unfortunately, dollars for preventive measures are severely limited. The state budget is constrained and most federal sources of funding are only available when there is already an environmental or navigational emergency. By this time, the damage has been done.

I cannot be satisfied with the results we have so far and neither should the people of Washington. I am calling on our state and federal lawmakers, as well as agency leaders, to join me in seeking fundamental changes to the way we meet the challenges presented by derelict vessels.

First, we must strengthen owner accountability. Potential buyers are not required to show proof that they can afford to maintain or properly dispose of a vessel once they have purchased it. One way to do this would be to require the owner to have a bond sufficient to cover ownership cost. We also need stiffer penalties for trespassers and scofflaws.

Second, we and federal agency partners such as the EPA, the Coast Guard, and NOAA must have increased authority to intervene in seizing derelict vessels before they become an environmental or navigational emergency.

Finally, we need increased funding to deal with derelict vessels before they become an emergency. The emergency funds spent on just two ships, the Deep Sea and last year’s Davy Crockett, could have been used to proactively remove 19 large vessels that are currently on DNR’s derelict vessel watch list. We can spend much less taxpayer money on an efficient program to get rid of them before disaster strikes.

The cost of the Deep Sea removal far outstrips the existing annual funding for the state derelict vessel program. Without the help of federal emergency funds, we would not have been able to pay for removal and the vessel would likely have been left on the bottom. Without the foresight of the 2012 Legislature to appropriate an additional, one-time, $3 million infusion of funding, we would not have the money at the state level to properly scrap the ship now that it has been raised.

We are grateful that the vessel has been raised. Having seen the joint operation to raise the Deep Sea first-hand, I can tell you that the work of the Coast Guard, Department of Ecology, Island County and the contractors from Global Diving and Salvage and NRC-Environmental Services was a model of multi-agency coordination at its best.

If we can strengthen our ability to prevent future Deep Sea tragedies, the people of Washington and the waters they cherish will be better off.

As the elected commissioner of public lands, Peter Goldmark manages the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.