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Without a local coordinator, derelict boats are often not removed from the water until it's too late

Top photo: A1 Marine tows a leaking wooden boat to shore to be salvaged, Jan. 22. The vessel had been illegally moored, then was illegally anchored. Middle photo: Some of the refuse and potentially hazardous materials that could have ended up in the water if the boat sank. Bottom photo: The vessel
Top photo: A1 Marine tows a leaking wooden boat to shore to be salvaged, Jan. 22. The vessel had been illegally moored, then was illegally anchored. Middle photo: Some of the refuse and potentially hazardous materials that could have ended up in the water if the boat sank. Bottom photo: The vessel's hull. 'This isn't a problem we've had in the past or a problem we're going to have in the future. It's a problem we have today,' said Terry Whalen of A1 Marine.
— image credit: Terry Whalen / A1 Marine

The idea seemed to be win-win.

Under the state Department of Natural Resources' Derelict Vessel Removal Program, local governments could get reimbursed for 75 percent — later upped to 90 percent — of the cost of disposing of derelict boats. Reimbursement would be made from an account funded by $2 from each vessel registration in Washington state.

Removing the derelict vessel would remove a pollution threat from the marine environment. DNR would then pursue the boat's registered owner to recoup its costs.

The state law establishing the program allowed the program to be coordinated locally by a parks and recreation district, port district, and any "city, town, or county with ownership, management, or jurisdiction over the aquatic lands in Washington State."

Under the supervision of Joanruth Baumann, who at the time worked for the county Public Works Department, the local program was proactive, according to Terry Whalen of A1 Marine. Baumann worked with A1 to coordinate removal of boats identified as being at risk of sinking, and got them removed from the water before they could become an environmental hazard.

Under the supervision of Joanruth Baumann, who at the time worked for the county Public Works Department, the local program was proactive, according to Terry Whalen of A1 Marine. Baumann worked with A1 to coordinate removal of boats identified as being at risk of sinking, and got them removed from the water before they could become an environmental hazard.

Baumann said she had built up enough confidence with DNR that the agency trusted her to identify boats that were derelict and at risk of sinking. She even maintained a photo inventory of abandoned and derelict vessels.

"It's cheaper to get them before they sink," she said. "I would love to do it again as a contractor."

After Baumann left the county's employ in 2006, the job went to Shannon Hoffmann, stormwater technician in the Community Development and Planning Department. Then, to Gary Covington, environmental health specialist in the county Health Department. Then it got dropped.

The Town of Friday Harbor had pitched in $2,500 a year, mostly to cover the cost of using town trucks to haul derelict vessels retrieved from Beaverton Cove. This year, the town has budgeted $10 as a "placeholder."

Fast forward to August 2009. A 35- to 40-foot pontoon houseboat is photographed off Shipyard Cove taking on water Aug. 2, then partially submerged Sept. 2. And no one would take responsibility, to give the OK to take the vessel out of the water. The registered owner said she had sold it. The U.S. Coast Guard waited to see if it became a hazard to navigation. State DNR waited to see if it became an environmental hazard.

Meanwhile, currents carried the houseboat around Turn Island, through Cattle Pass, to Eagle Point, and then across Haro Strait to Canadian waters.

Without a local coordinator, the San Juans' participation in the Derelict Vessel Removal Program was rudderless.

'Being proactive is the way to stop this'
The Derelict Vessel Removal Program is still active; A1 Marine has the salvage contract with state DNR. But without a local authorized public entity, like the county, the program has become reactive rather than proactive.

As the authorized public entity, the county had the authority to obtain custody of a vessel that it deemed abandoned or derelict. To take custody of a vessel, the authorized public entity must mail notice of its intent to obtain custody, at least 20 days prior, to the last known address of the last owner to register the vessel. It must also post notice of its intent clearly on the vessel for 30 days, and publish its intent at least once, between 10 and 20 days prior, in a newspaper of general circulation for the county in which the vessel is located.

After that, A1 can salvage the vessel.

Without a local authorized public entity, A1 can salvage the vessel only if it is in immediate or imminent danger of sinking, is breaking up or blocking navigation channels, or poses a reasonably imminent threat to human health or safety, including a threat of environmental contamination. But the Department of Ecology must first contact the Derelict Vessel Removal Program manager to coordinate a removal and disposal plan. A1 is then paid by DNR.

Whalen said the county needs a program in which risky vessels are removed before they become an environmental hazard. Here's what he's proposed: Establish a database of risky vessels — those that are illegally anchored, illegally moored, and likely to sink. Then take steps to get those boats out of the water.

"We need to spend the money up front and take care of it before they sink," he said. "The solution is to get them before they get like that. You don't see abandoned cars left on the side of the road. Being proactive is the way to stop this."

San Juan County has the biggest derelict-vessel problem of all Washington counties. A1 has conducted more than 50 salvages for DNR since 2003; one man was owner of seven vessels that sunk, five here and two in Bellingham Bay.

Five salvages in the last 13 months cost $150,000 to dispose of — hauling out, demolishing and taking to the dump, Whalen said.

The County Council, after a sobering presentation by Whalen, highlighted by visual aids, agreed on Feb. 9 to seek a recommendation from the Marine Resources Committee on potential funding options that might revive the program. Whalen gave the same presentation to the MRC on Feb. 17.

"This isn't a problem we've had in the past or a problem we're going to have in the future," Whalen said. "It's a problem we have today. I don't know the answer, but I believe a more proactive approach is needed."

MRC member Barbara Marrett, who is also a Friday Harbor port commissioner, is scheduled to discuss the derelict vessel issue with other port commissioners Feb. 24.

"All the counties who have this program, except for Kitsap, are no longer able to administer the program," she said. "We don't have the resources anymore."

Still, she thinks it's possible to institute a proactive program like that recommended by Whalen. She thinks DNR could do it by shifting funding.

"Part of it is DNR looking at the problem and taking this proactive approach," she said. "The cost of salvaging a vessel that's sunk, in addition to the environmental degradation, is far greater than removing a vessel before it sinks and scrapping it."

What the law says
According to state law, a vessel is considered abandoned "if the vessel’s owner is not known or cannot be located, or if the vessel’s owner is known and located but is unwilling to take control of the vessel, and the vessel has been left, moored, or anchored in the same area without the express consent, or contrary to the rules, of the owner, manager, or lessee of the aquatic lands below or on which the vessel is located for either a period of more than 30 consecutive days or for more than a total of 90 days in any 365-day period."

“In the same area” means within a radius of five miles of any location where the vessel was previously moored or anchored on aquatic lands.

According to state law, a vessel is considered derelict if the vessel’s owner is known and can be located, and exerts control of a vessel that "Has been moored, anchored, or otherwise left in the waters of the state or on public property contrary to chapter 79.02.300 RCW or rules adopted by an authorized public entity; has been left on private property without authorization of the owner; or has been left for a period of seven consecutive days, and: Is sunk or in danger of sinking, is obstructing a waterway, or is endangering life or property."

A person who causes a vessel to become abandoned or derelict upon aquatic lands is guilty of a misdemeanor.

'County stepped away from it entirely'
Melissa Ferris of the state's Derelict Vessel Removal Program said she'd like to see the county get involved in the Derelict Vessel Removal Program again.

"The county has the ability to do it. In the past, they were quite active, but they have stepped away from it entirely," she said. "It helps to have a local coordinator."

Actually, several agencies can enforce the law regarding abandoned and derelict vessels. Ferris said the sheriff has jurisdiction in county waters. The Coast Guard and the Army Corps of Engineers have jurisdiction over boats that block navigation; removal of those vessels is federally funded. Fish and Wildlife and DNR have jurisdiction in state waters. But those agencies are stretched thin over the Evergreen State. DNR has only eight or nine officers for the entire state, and they spend their time investigating marijuana growing, poaching and thefts on state land.

The county's resources are tight too. Health Department Director John Manning said the process of notifying the owner, removing the vessel and getting reimbursed by the state took too long.

"If someone identified a derelict vessel, we sent a staff member out to inspect it, to research the owner, contact the owner, tell them to move the vessel," Manning said. "It took 30 days by law, then after 30 days, if the vessel was not removed, the county could petition to take ownership of vessel, but then the owner has time to respond. Then we would remove the vessel or hire someone to remove the vessel, then send DNR a bill. It took three to six months (to get reimbursed). We were out for several months for no pay for several people."

He added, "It might have made a difference if we were reimbursed right away. We were cutting staff and time, there was a low public health effect and we didn't see it as a primary duty of this department. Public Works didn't have funding. There was some talk of the Marine Resources Committee taking it on. They may have outside funding. If they could do that, great."

UPCOMING: Barbara Marrett, a Friday Harbor port commissioner and member of the San Juan County Marine Resources Committee, will discuss the derelict vessel issue at the Port Commission Feb. 24 in the San Juan Island Yacht Club. The meeting begins at 4 p.m. and is open to the public.

ONLINE:Washington State Department of Natural Resources Derelict Vessel Removal Program.

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