No-interest loan for derelict vessel program | Editorial

San Juan County has the worst derelict vessel problem in the state. Loaded with fuel, oil and other toxins, derelict vessels pose a tremendous environmental threat.

The state Department of Natural Resources’ Derelict Vessel Removal Program should provide a no-interest loan to fund a local Derelict Vessel Removal Program coordinator. The loan would be repaid by in-kind services and costs recouped from owners of derelict vessels.

As currently established, local governments can get reimbursed for 90 percent of the cost of disposing of derelict boats. Reimbursement is made from an account funded by $2 from each vessel registration in Washington state. DNR then pursues the boat’s registered owner to recoup its costs.

But most counties, including San Juan, can’t afford to cover labor costs until they are reimbursed, which according to one county official can take between three and six months.

Funding the upfront costs of a local coordinator would make the program proactive, rather than reactive, because a local coordinator could move on boats that have been abandoned, identify boats that are derelict and risk of sinking, and get them out of the water before they become an environmental and public health problem.

Lacking a local authorized public coordinator, DNR has a contract with a salvage company that can, by law, move on a vessel only if it is in immediate or imminent danger of sinking, is breaking up or blocking navigation channels. By that time, it can be too late. And once a derelict vessel sinks, the cost of salvaging can quadruple.

At the program’s most efficient, local coordination was done by the San Juan County Public Works Department, with the assistance of the Town of Friday Harbor and the Port of Friday Harbor. Joanruth Baumann had built up enough confidence with DNR that the agency trusted her to identify boats that were derelict and at risk of sinking, so they could be taken care of before they sank. She even maintained a photo inventory of abandoned and derelict vessels.

Baumann said she thinks the program cost about $100,000 a year; the county got a little more that 90 percent back.

“It was the best bang for the buck the citizens ever got,” she said.

She said of the program: “There is a great deal of interagency and intercommunity government cooperation required to make this work. It is a nightmare of paperwork and organizing of minute details. But I had a system that worked and I estimate that it took about 10 hours per week of my time, sometimes less.”

It doesn’t make sense that so much energy and resources would be poured into restoration of environmental health, but we would leave out derelict vessels. Funding a derelict vessel removal program is more than worth the investment.

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