Tougher stand needed against derelict vessels

Loaded with fuel, oil and other toxins, derelict boats pose a tremendous threat to our marine environment.

As it stands, under the state Department of Natural Resources’ Derelict Vessel Removal Program, local government can be reimbursed 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.

Under the program, a city or county’s derelict vessel removal coordinator has the authority to move on boats that have been abandoned, identify boats that are derelict and at risk of sinking, and get them out of the water before they become an environmental and public health problem. But most cities and counties can’t afford to cover labor costs until they are reimbursed, which according to one county official can take between three and six months.

Lacking local government’s involvement, DNR will contract with a salvage company for derelict boat removal. But a salvage company, by law, can act only if a vessel is sinking or blocking navigation channels. By that time, it can be too late. And once a derelict vessel sinks, the cost of salvaging can quadruple.

The burden is on local taxpayers instead of where it should be: the boat owner who abandons a boat or allows it to become at risk of sinking and becoming a hazard to the environment as well as a hazard to navigation.

State Senate Bill 5271 and House Bill 1322 would toughen the Derelict Vessel Removal Program and hold boat owners more accountable and provide local governments with the same liability immunity that emergency responders have.

SB 5271, sponsored by Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, was sent to the Rules Committee for second reading on Tuesday. Its companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, was scheduled to go before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

These bills should be approved.

Specifically, under the amended Derelict Vessel Removal Program, a boat owner can be charged with a misdemeanor for knowingly “(causing) a vessel to sink, break up, or block navigation channels, or to become abandoned or derelict upon aquatic lands, or to contaminate the environment …”

Marina owners would be authorized to remove abandoned vessels and seek 90 percent reimbursement of all auditable costs. That could be good news for local ports; Kingston Harbormaster Kevin Van Vliet said his crew pumps water from one derelict boat a year, without reimbursement. A derelict boat anchored in Apple Tree Cove is at risk of sinking. “If it goes down, it’s our problem,” he said. “Its engines are shot. It’s just a matter of time.”

In addition, a city, county or port district would have the would have the authority to auction, salvage, scrap, sell or dispose of an abandoned or derelict vessel for additional cost reimbursement. They would have the same lawsuit protections that emergency responders have.

Local, state, federal and tribal governments pour millions of dollars each year into improving the health of our marine environment. Effective derelict vessel removal and responsible boat ownership are part of the solution.

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