The menace of derelict vessels

Derelict vessels are the marine equivalent of a condemned home, listing and hemorrhaging gook in the bathtub of Puget Sound. (Viking funerals are innocuous by comparison.) A vessel in its death throes isn’t a ‘61 Chevy on jack stands; it’s a manmade hazard-in-waiting.

When these (literally) sinking ships imperil the environment and threaten the Northwest’s critical shellfish industry, it’s in the public interest to establish an effective, proactive means of resolution.

Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, lives on Whidbey Island and viscerally understands what’s at stake. She continues to play a leadership role tackling derelict vessels and safeguarding Puget Sound’s ecosystem. Last year, along with Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, she shepherded House Bill 1245, which beefed up the state’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program, administered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed Smith’s latest bill, HB 2457, which could serve as a template for other states.

The legislation establishes new requirements on the sale of certain vessels; charges a fee for commercial vessels required to be listed with the state Department of Revenue to underwrite the Derelict Vessel Program; requires specific insurance to be held by moorage facilities and moored vessels and certain information to be collected from moored vessels; exempts “vessel deconstruction activities” from the retail sales and use tax; and establishes new penalties for failure to register a vessel.

“This legislation is about keeping boats off of the bottom of our waters and protecting our environment. The goal is to prevent crises in our waterways,” said Smith. “We have raised the bar for buyers and sellers of high-risk vessels, creating clear expectations. And we’ve lowered the cost of deconstruction to help owners do the right thing at the end of a vessel’s life cycle.”

In between legislative sessions, Smith participated in a work group, conducting stakeholder meetings and study sessions. The final bill reflects the wisdom gleaned from real-world experience.

Local examples are legion. In 2012, the derelict fishing boat Deep Sea spewed more than 5,000 gallons of oil into Penn Cove and spurred the state Department of Health to temporarily ban shellfish harvesting.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson approaches this for what it is, an environmental crime. In January, he teamed with Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark to announce criminal charges against the separate owners of two derelict vessels.

“If you break our state laws and pollute our environment — we will hold you accountable,” Ferguson said.

It’s about time.

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