EVERETT — Two forlorn, disintegrating boats poke through the surface of Deadwater Slough, looking contorted in their watery graves.
They’re the ones you’ve probably seen below if you’ve looked to your right while driving U.S. 2 west into Everett.
Since they’re not blocking the waterway, or leaking any obvious fluids, those rotting vessels will probably sit where they are, forming part of the landscape for years to come.
“It’s not in a navigational channel, so it’s not a risk to mariners. What agency is going to pay to get rid of it?” said Dave Safford, 66, of Marysville, a firefighter-paramedic who often spends his days off boating local waterways. “It does look kind of neat there.”
Abandoned boats aren’t hard to find in the marshy landscape a stone’s throw from Everett’s street grid.
The Department of Natural Resources and other agencies are working to tidy up, as far as their limited budgets will allow. That means that wayward barges, recreational boats and small fishing vessels aren’t likely to be pulled out unless they pose immediate danger to people or to the environment.
Even so, the DNR enjoyed its most active year ever for boat cleanup in 2010, removing 31 boats from waters statewide and reimbursing other agencies for taking out another 15. None of those, however, was in Snohomish County and only one was in Island County.
At the same time, the agency is backing a new law to tighten state penalties for anybody who intentionally sinks a boat.
A recent tally of abandoned boats included 18 in Snohomish County and 11 in Island County. Those figures are based on what people report to the state Department of Natural Resources. The counts are subject to change, as boats change ownership, are moved or break apart.
It’s up to the DNR’s Derelict Vessel Removal Program to decide which ones to take out. The program has removed 335 boats throughout Washington since it was started in 2003.
“Basically, I try to get the ones that are in danger of sinking or breaking apart first,” said Melissa Ferris, the program manager.
From mid-2007 until now, the DNR had removed four boats from the waters in Snohomish County and another eight in Island County.
This week, Ferris traveled to Everett and put notices to start the custody process on three more apparently abandoned boats north of Everett, near I-5.
The DNR program operates on a $1.7 million two-year budget. That money comes from a $3 fee on recreational boat licenses, including a temporary $1 fee set to expire after 2013.
With 270,000 vessels registered in the state, there’s potentially a lot of work to do. Pulling up a single problematic boat can sometimes cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
An extreme example is the ongoing cleanup and salvage of an oil-leaking barge in the Columbia River, the 431-foot Davy Crockett. It’s cost federal and state agencies an estimated $7 million and counting.
Authorities couldn’t point to recent cases of people intentionally setting boats adrift in Snohomish County. A Seattle man, however, did make headlines in 2009 after reportedly growing frustrated over failed attempts to sell his yacht, sinking it in Puget Sound and eventually pleading guilty to insurance fraud.
“We have had several (cases) where the owner left the vessel behind when he moved or otherwise clearly abandoned the boat, but they are not as well documented because law enforcement chose not to pursue the issue,” Ferris said.
Many sunken boats fall into a gray area in which the owner didn’t intend for the boat to sink, but was unable to remove it after that happened, she said.
With the poor economy, it’s easy to see the financial temptation to get rid of a boat.
The public Port of Everett Marina has held two auctions each year since 2008 to get rid of boats whose owners fell behind on moorage fees, port spokeswoman Lisa Lefeber said. There have been as many as 11 boats up for bid during those sales.
The private Dagmars Marina in Everett for years has been auctioning off unwanted boats as often as three times a year, shift supervisor Colin Grant said. A typical auction might include five boats.
“It gets to the point where you can’t even give them away,” Grant said. “There’s no such thing as a free boat. If you get a free boat, it needs a lot of work.”
It’s already a misdemeanor to abandon a boat in Washington waters.
A proposed law working through the legislative process in Olympia would clarify that the law applies in cases of intentional action, or inaction, that causes a vessel to sink, break up or block a navigational channel.
“We’ve had several people who will go and punch a bunch of holes in the hull of their boat, causing it to sink intentionally,” Ferris said. “If people are intentionally causing it to get there, we want to be able to charge them.”
The proposed law also would limit civil liability for state agencies or cities using their powers to move a boat. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, she said, though it’s a scenario that, in theory, could pose trouble.
The bill has cleared the Senate and on Friday awaited action in the House.
Getting rid of old boats isn’t the DNR’s job alone. The state Department of Ecology leads responses to toxic spills.
The agency responded to 15 small-scale spills in Snohomish County between Nov. 1 and last week, agency spokesman Curt Hart said.
“We always say that all spills matter, regardless of size,” Hart said. “A quart of motor oil has the potential to foul up to 100,000 gallons of water and could spread out to cover almost an acre surface of water.”
Other common threats are gasoline, which is highly toxic, and diesel, which sticks around for a long time.
The toxic danger from spills starts immediately after a boat sinks, and the threat remains long afterward.
“A boat can be sitting underwater for many years and suddenly you get a ‘burp’ of oil, and then you have one of those mystery oil sheens,” Hart said. “It could take weeks, months, even years, and then all of a sudden you have an environmental hazard.”
The agency tries to recoup cleanup costs whenever possible so taxpayers aren’t footing the bill.
Federal agencies are involved, too. The U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are responsible for moving debris that blocks federally authorized navigational channels.
In 2006, a half-sunken rusting barge on the Snohomish River leaked 100 gallons of diesel fuel, prompting state and federal officials to discuss ways to remove it and a dozen or so other abandoned vessels on the river. Ultimately, they decided to leave the barge in place because of a lack of funding.
It’s unclear whether any of those vessels been removed during the past five years. The state Department of Ecology referred questions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was unable to provide an answer by Friday afternoon.
Despite the possibility of contamination, decaying maritime relics are likely to litter rivers, sloughs and coastline for the foreseeable future, like nautical versions of a classic car rusting in a field.
On Steamboat Slough, between Spencer and Ebey islands, one such landmark is a partially submerged, mold-encrusted fishing boat where a missing wall reveals a cutaway view inside the cabin.
“It’s not blocking navigation, it’s not spilling anything, so it’s just going to sit there and rot,” said Safford, the firefighter and mariner. “If you come back here in 10 years, there’s probably still going to be some of it left there.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.