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KUOW's environment beat brings you stories on the ongoing cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, alternative energy, the health of the Puget Sound, coal transportation and more. We're also partnered with several stations across the Northwest to bring you environmental news via EarthFix.

Washington Set To Pass Legislation On Derelict Vessels, But Funding Problems Remain

Ashley Ahearn

There are several hundred derelict and abandoned vessels dotting the waterways of Washington and Oregon. They can block navigation and pollute the environment, and they can also be very expensive to remove.

Bills to fund the clean up and prevention of derelict vessels have now been passed in the Washington House and Senate. Final legislation is expected in the coming weeks, but no permanent sources of funding for large vessel removal have been identified.

There are, however, several poster children — or poster boats, as it were — that come to mind as examples of where regulation and enforcement of derelict vessels has failed taxpayers.

Take the Deep Sea. It’s been just over a year since the fishing boat caught fire and sank. More than 3,000 gallons of diesel fuel escaped, forcing the closure of nearby shellfish beds in Penn Cove on Whidbey Island. The clean up cost more than $5 million.

Or take the Davy Crockett, the 431-foot barge that broke apart and spilled almost 40,000 gallons of oil into the Columbia River, leading to a $22 million clean up. The owner of the vessel was recently sentenced to four months in prison.

The new legislation does not provide funding for those major vessel removals.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Jim Carnahan has been boating on Puget Sound all his life. He says commercial vessels should pay into the derelict vessel clean up fund. ", "fid": "2849", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201303/derelict vessel 2.jpg", "attribution": "Credit Ashley Ahearn"}]]“This bill is not solving that problem,” says Melissa Ferris, head of the derelict and abandoned vessel program at the state Department of Natural Resources.

But, Ferris adds, “The bill adds some things to get at vessel owner accountability, which would get towards the prevention standpoint.”

Here’s how the bill would encourage accountability:

Vessel owners who want to sell their old boats would have to provide an inspection form to the buyer. The form would document how much oil or other pollutants may be left on board. And if they don’t, then they could be liable for the clean up costs if the boat sinks.

“You wouldn’t buy a house without knowing what you were getting into,” Ferris says, “and most responsible buyers are not going to buy a large vessel without doing some sort of inspection. But it’s not required.” Under the new bill, it would be.

The bill would also strengthen the Department of Ecology’s authority to board abandoned vessels to assess the environmental risk before it is too late.

There’s one ongoing problem: Commercial vessels, those old fishing boats or barges, are far and away the most expensive clean up projects on Melissa Ferris’ list. Yet those vessel owners are not required to pay into the clean up fund.

Right now if you register a recreational vessel in Washington, $3 of your registration fee goes to pay for the removal of derelict and abandoned vessels.

The $3 fee was set to drop down to $2 at the end of 2013, but the new legislation prevents that from happening.

“I think the commercial vessel owners should also pay something into that [fund] as well,” says Jim Carnahan, as he sits in the cabin of his 35-foot sloop, the Perdón, moored at the Shilshole Bay Marina in Ballard.

"I think that all boat owners should. More importantly, I think the people that own those derelict vessels should be hunted down and caused to pay for it. But my understanding is that sometimes it’s not possible to find that person or the person who owns it doesn’t have any money,” Carnahan added.

Tax payers, whether they own boats or not, end up paying for major vessel clean ups that exceed the budget for the Derelict Vessel Program.

A final version of the bill will be signed into law in the coming weeks.

See the whole story on KUOW’s Earthfix